New port board up to old tricks

QUESTIONS ABOUT PORT — What is alleged as a violation of Louisiana's open meetings law at the Port of Lake Charles has citizens concerned about the port's future.

Here we go again! The newly revamped Lake Charles Port Board last week surprisingly unseated its acting president after being warned by its two attorneys it was violating the state’s open meetings law. Similar events at the port in the late-1980s and early-2000s led to two major scandals.

This open meetings incident was aimed at replacing Elcie Guillory, who has a 40-year record of distinguished public service. Guillory had become acting president and was in line to become port board president. However, he was replaced by David Darbone with the votes of Darbone and commissioners Carl J. Krielow, Tom Lorenzi and Keith Prudhomme, who was attending his first meeting.

Last Monday’s chain of events made it obvious the four commissioners had planned the board takeover before the meeting. Like the two earlier port boards, they weren’t going to let anything stop them from giving the International Longshoremen’s Union (ILA) a major voice in port operations. They also want to name the next port director and bring in another stevedore company that hires longshoremen.

Mike Dees and Jonathan Ringo, the two board attorneys, said the agenda couldn’t be amended to include the election of a new president without unanimous consent. A vote to do that failed after commissioners Dudley Dixon, Michael Eason and Guillory voted against the move.

Upon learning about what had happened at the meeting, three former port board presidents filed suit in 14th Judicial District Court. Wade Shaddock, Walt Sanchez and John LeBlanc allege the board did violate the open meetings law, and asked for a restraining order to stop the board from having any meetings until the issue is settled in court.

District Judge David Ritchie signed a temporary restraining order prohibiting any further meetings until a court hearing is held on Sept. 19 to determine if what the board did was illegal. Another board meeting to try and fix the problem had been suggested.

The four commissioners who voted to replace Guillory will be asked in court to show cause why electing Darbone didn’t violate the open meetings law; why his election isn’t illegal; why they shouldn’t restore Guillory as acting president; why the four shouldn’t face civil penalties, and why those who filed the suit shouldn’t be awarded reasonable attorney fees and all court costs.

Louisiana governors appoint members of the Lake Charles Port Board after being given lists of three nominees for each seat from area legislators and public bodies. Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed Krielow, Lorenzi and Prudhomme. The governor ignored the entire Southwest Louisiana legislative delegation that had made different recommendations for the last two appointments.

Many appointments to state boards are made on the basis of political contributions and political connections, and a number of them have been bad choices. Two of three port board commissioners who went to prison after the 1980s scandal were selected by former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards. They had been hand picked by former state Reps. Wilford Carter of Lake Charles and Burt Andrepont of Sulphur.

Andrepont was later named port director, but he was terminated after the rat problem at the port got completely out of control. Management problems also severely damaged the port’s reputation in shipping circles.

Legislators quickly came to the rescue. The late state Sen. William “Bill” McLeod of Lake Charles became a major player in righting the ship when he was chief author of legislation restructuring appointments to the port board.

I wrote in 1988 that hopes for a bright new beginning were high with new port board members. However, I also said if the new commissioners were motivated by self-interests they, too, would create major port problems.

Things rocked along fairly well at the port until late-2002 and early-2003. That is when gubernatorial appointments eventually ended up giving four more commissioners majority control of the port. By February of 2003, six of the seven commissioners had resigned from the board.

Chad Thielen, the sixth member to leave, said, “I do not intend to have my good name sullied by what is surely to become a public scandal.” Don Lyle, Roy Collins, Martin Guillory, Donald Tousand and Russell Tritico Sr. were squeezed out when their terms ended.

The departing members said there was fiscal mismanagement, micromanaging of port operations and the loss of $22 million over a 10-year period. Mike Dees, who was also port attorney then, said the port broke federal laws and its failure to negotiate contracts with Citgo and Conoco-Phillips cost the port millions of dollars it wouldn’t recover.

The area legislative delegation stepped up again and sponsored the 2003 bill wiping out the existing port board and creating a new governing body. Former state Sen. Jerry Theunissen of Jennings was lead author.

Based on past history and what happened last week, citizens can’t help but wonder whether we are once again headed for major problems at the Port of Lake Charles.

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