Sparks fly during council meeting
Mayor Bobbie Prince and District 6 City Councilman Robert Williamson walked out of a Feb. 5 Port Arthur City Council meeting after District 5 City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Willie “Bae” Lewis Jr. began questioning City Manager Floyd Johnson about travel expenses during a consent agenda discussion over expense reports.
Lewis explained to Johnson that prior to any travel, in this case by Prince and City Secretary Sherri Bellard, all council members are to be notified. Lewis said that Johnson’s staff was not enforcing the city travel ordinance (6186) that required this notification and that he was not notified of the travel by Prince and Bellard, nor were other council members.
“You need to instruct your staff not to violate this city ordinance,” Councilman Lewis said to the city manager. Councilman Williamson called for a point of order at this point in the discussion and accused Lewis of being off topic from consent agenda item C – Expense Reports.
“He’s off topic; that’s not on the agenda,” Williamson said.
“His point is not valid,” Lewis said. “The city travel ordinance governs everything.”
“Are you going to get back on topic?” Prince asked Lewis.
“I’m on topic,” he responded.
Lewis then instructed Johnson to get his staff in line and follow the ordinance. The mayor then suggested taking a vote on Lewis’s point of order and Lewis asked the mayor, “What is your problem?”
Williamson informed Lewis that he had no authority to instruct the city manager and that it comes from the vote of council. The mayor then ordered a five-minute break, and Lewis said that after the break, “We’re going to start right back where we started.”
After the break, things became even more heated between Prince and Lewis.
Lewis continued to press Johnson about his staff not following protocol, and the mayor warned Lewis several times to stay in order. City attorney Valecia R. Tizeno then suggested that the council get back on topic and attempted to move the meeting along, but to no avail.
As Lewis continued to try and discuss the city manager’s staff, the mayor continued to call him out of order.
“I could be finished discussing this, if you would just shut up,” Lewis told Prince. Williamson then accused Lewis of violating the decorum ordinance by making disparaging remarks about council members. Shortly afterward, around 7:10 p.m., Prince and Williamson walked out. Tinzeno then had to stop the meeting because there weren’t enough council members for a quorum.
“Before I came on board Councilman (Raymond) Scott and Councilman (Harold) Doucette questioned (the mayor) about notification,” Lewis said in an interview with The Examiner. “She told them I’m going to go wherever the hell I want to. She just took off. She’s abused credit cards too. She’s out of control. All travel is handled through the finance department — checks and per diem.”
According to Lewis, Johnson asked him what his staff had to with it. Lewis said that the finance department falls under the city manager’s authority.
“His staff cut the checks and pay the hotel bills,” Lewis said.
The mayor declined to comment during the break in the meeting, and the city manager’s office was unavailable for comment as of press time.
The council meeting reconvened around 7:30 p.m. with Prince and Williamson rejoining.
Council approves creation of new emergency service district
In other business, the Port Arthur council approved the creation of the Jefferson County Emergency Service District No. 4, which will bring in funds for the Labelle-Fannett and Cheek volunteer fire departments and help pay for operations like water and electricity.
“(The district) would encompass all the areas that are serviced by the Labelle-Fannett and Cheek volunteer fire departments, said Joshua Heinz, attorney from Benckenstein & Oxford, the firm representing the fire departments. “The ESD is created as a political subdivision which can levy property tax, and the tax revenues can be used solely for the purposes of fire protection, fire prevention and also emergency medical services.”
Heinz said that this funding is essential to the two volunteer fire departments.
“These volunteer fire departments scrape by as it is to generate enough funding through donations and fundraisers just to basically keep in operation,” he said. “There’s no way on a volunteer firefighters budget to afford really up-to-date certified equipment. They basically live off grants to help them buy bunker gear (a firefighter’s outer protective clothing, costing around $4,000). If funds aren’t available through grants, then they just get what they can, which is usually hand-me-downs from different municipalities that are phasing out equipment.”
Heinz said the proposal to create the ESD needed approval from not only Port Arthur but also Beaumont and Taylor Landing. All three municipalities have now granted approval.
“Since the proposed district’s boundaries would include portions of both the city of Beaumont and Port Arthur’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), which extend five miles outside of their city limits, the petitioners are required to get consent from the cities for their ETJs to be included within the proposed district.”
The creation of the ESD is a win for the cities, Heinz said.
“By consenting to those areas being in the ESD, (the cities) will be providing those citizens with the opportunity to get better funding for better fire protection,” he added.
Heinz said now that the proposal has been approved by the cities, it will go to public hearing Monday, Feb.11, at the Jefferson County Commissioners Court.
“The public hearing gives anyone who has an interest in the ESD to come in and voice their opinion for or against its creation,” Heinz said. “After the public hearing, the commissioner will determine if the creation of the district is feasible.”
The ESD is more than feasible, according to Heinz, as it would generate more in tax revenue than it would cost to produce. If the commissioners court decides that the creation is feasible, an election will be ordered for May 11 when voters in the proposed district will get a chance to vote to approve or deny the ESD.