In a much-anticipated report on the management of the Port of Houston Authority (PHA), the Sunset Commission, as directed by the Texas legislature, identified several opportunities to improve aspects of port management, including accountability and stakeholder trust.
Credit: Air Alliance Houston
Released on August 3, the 95-page report includes a series of recommendations for improvement in a number of basic management and fiduciary areas at the port. [Note: The Authority has until August 17 to respond and final comments will be submitted during a public hearing on September 5.]
While the report reaffirms the Authority’s ongoing “responsibility as a government agency,” it also highlights a pervasive “lack of accountability.” Understanding that the port is a unique institution, PHA is criticized in the report for not following a number of best practices in either the private or public sector.
One example of the port not following best management practices includes a controversial development fund, which was “modeled after the way private businesses operated” at the time of its inception in 1949. Today, “the Authority does not set spending limits for travel or entertainment” even though many companies and other organizations enforce stricter controls on such expenditures. This issue highlights PHA’s complex role of straddling public sector responsibilities with private sector expectations.
The report also identifies that public stakeholder trust in the Authority has steadily eroded, and finds that PHA “lacks a proactive public engagement strategy” to rebuild that trust. While community relationships are identified as critical to advancing PHA’s mission, the report suggests that current efforts are not enough to meet the needs of concerned citizens or the port itself. PHA’s handling of the failed cruise terminal and the current Bayport expansion are explicitly cited as two instances of public outreach efforts overall characterized as “reactive”. Transparency at the Authority was mentioned as a key issue for many stakeholders and will become increasingly important as the port seeks to expand due to projected increases in container throughput and the Panama Canal expansion.
As EDF continues to work in partnership with PHA to reduce emissions from oceangoing vessels, trains, cargo handling equipment, and port trucks and improve Houston air quality, we are encouraged by this report’s findings and recommendations. Residential areas immediately neighboring port facilities, commonly known as fenceline communities, bear many of the public health impacts of port activities. The reforms recommended in this report will help amplify their voice and ensure that stewardship of public goods, including air, water, land, and funds, become factors in port decision-making. These reforms will also make PHA stronger and better equipped to handle the inevitable diverse pressures over the next several years.