The Port of Houston Authority wants to end the confusion about the contents of those thousands of cargo containers that come to town via ship and then leave on the backs of trucks and trains. Local television viewers have been saturated of late with the image of cranes lowering containers to the docks. When one is opened, a stream of workers piles out as a voice intones, "Ever wonder what's in those big containers they unload from ships at the Port of Houston? Jobs."
The Authority can't be accused of false advertising. The Port is investing big bucks and creating plenty of jobs -- all of them apparently aimed at pushing a $387 million bond referendum past voters in November.
The bond money will primarily be used to construct the controversial Bayport container terminal next to the bayside community of Seabrook. The opposition has little money to wage a public fight, but the Port and its supporters have already launched what promises to be an expensive battle: The multipronged effort will cost upward of $2 million.
The vote-yes campaign will resemble Port bond efforts of the past, with the usual mercenaries already on board. Ubiquitous political consultant Dave Walden, who headed the ballpark referendum team in 1996 and worked on both the Lanier and Brown mayoral races, is managing the campaign. Citizens for the Future, a PAC that often raises funds for county bond elections (especially those that will benefit contractors), is trying to scare up $750,000 to hire consultants and engineer a media blitz. Campaign Strategies, a consulting firm that has a perfect winning record on local referenda, will handle direct mail and phone banks.
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Port Authority chairman Ned Holmes has been working his business connections on behalf of the campaign; he hosted an August 10 fund-raiser for Citizens for the Future at his River Oaks mansion. And the Authority itself, according to an internal report on the Bayport project, will direct the election "activity."
The Port has already won a significant victory that could alone predetermine the result. The language that will appear on the ballot says nothing about Bayport, which is vigorously opposed by many residents of the bayside communities that will be affected by the mammoth project. Environmental interests concerned about potential adverse impacts to Galveston Bay and regional air quality have also weighed in against the container terminal.
Rather, the ballot will note that the money is to be spent on "port improvements, including environmental enhancements."
Rose Garcia of the Harris County Attorney's Office balked at the proposed language, which was drafted by bond expert Bob Collie of the law firm Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keaton. Garcia wanted to stick with the language in the state statute that defines the purpose of the Port, which says nothing about environmental enhancements. "I asked what they were, since I've never heard of them," Garcia says. But the county lacks the power to overrule the Authority's preference, she says, "so we used the Port's language."
While most of the preliminary action has taken place behind the scenes, the Port has been very public with its television spots. The first ad, "Container of Jobs," repeats the party line that container business is worth $7.7 billion annually to the local economy and generates 200,000 jobs. A second ad, "Investments," just started airing. As seagulls fly over the bay, beaches and wetlands, the narrator coos that "Working with our neighbors, we invest millions in environment enhancements to keep our home a place where people want to live and work."
Authority spokeswoman Rosie Barrera says that the ads, paid for by the Port, do not promote a position on the bond referendum. "It is not an advocacy piece," Barrera says of the container ad. "It is information and public awareness. We're prohibited by law to do anything but educate and inform."
The Port apparently sees a sudden need to educate and inform: The ads are part of a $915,000 contract with the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton that is designed "for repositioning or enhancement of the [Port's] message to the Gulf Coast market." The contract lasts through May, though most of the money will have been spent by Election Day.
The Hill and Knowlton deal specifically prohibits advocacy. "The advertising, marketing and public relations messages should not include any political advocacy message, but should be limited to messages which would 'inform and educate,' " the contract reads, echoing Barrera to the letter.
Those phrases appear crafted to address state statutes, which prohibit the Port from engaging in political advertising. Still, the timing of the Hill and Knowlton contract does point to a link with the referendum. Though the money comes out of the Port's promotions and development fund, which is occasionally used for feel-good ads in local publications, the huge outlay for the television spots is unparalleled. "Yeah, we've spent a lot more this year than we did last year," Barrera says.
The question of whether the Port is using public money to push the yes vote has been raised by environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, a leading Bayport opponent. Blackburn filed a complaint in June with District Attorney Johnny Holmes, asking him to investigate whether the ads violate state law. "The TV ad they're running is jobs walking out of containers," Blackburn says. "That is clearly advocacy for containers. I mean, God dawg."
Holmes's office didn't see it that way. In a reply to Blackburn, assistant D.A. Mia Magness noted the image-enhancing ad campaign is "conveniently scheduled to run just prior to the bond election." However, Magness added, "the timing of the advertising does not render it 'political advertising,' in violation of the [state] statute."
Still, at the very least, the ad walks a fine line. "It sounded pretty questionable to me," chuckles an observer familiar with the rules.
Regardless, it's certainly not illegal for the Port to lay cash on other aspects of the referendum. Dave Walden, for example, has been piecing together the overall strategy under a $3,000-a-month Port contract he signed last December, according to several people close to the campaign. "Sure, he's running it," says one source.
The contract called for Walden to do such vague tasks as "development and execution of plans and programs to seek public opinion and support of Authority development goals and objectives." If that means run the bond campaign, it would be old hat for Walden, who managed the stadium campaign.
Nevertheless, Barrera denies that Walden is directing the operation. His contract, which expired at the end of July, had nothing to do with the referendum, she says. "He was giving us advice on public awareness," she says. "He was assisting us on what some of the community needs might have been."
Walden is no less circumspect. He expects to direct the campaign as an employee of Citizens for the Future, though he has not been officially hired. As for his role while a servant of the Port, Walden says, "I did a little message strategy on what they're trying to do out there with the expansion."
It's not clear why the Port needs to take the stealth approach; according to one source, preliminary polling numbers show the public leaning toward a yes vote in big numbers. Perhaps Port officials believe the presence of other bond referenda on the ballot might skew the results in unpredictable ways. Authority officials may simply want some insurance that margins are high enough to withstand some erosion.
Or maybe the guerrilla skirmishes by Blackburn and other opponents have gotten under their skin, which could account for the perceived need to fight the other side's machetes with the heavy artillery. "There's a big offensive to attack the Port, to attack its credibility," says Barrera, "so it's needed to be countered."
In any case, the Authority believes the stakes are extremely high: An especially shrill consultant's report claims that without the bonds, "Bayport would be a financial disaster, which would bring down the entire Port of Houston."
"We feel that we have got to have that facility," Barrera says. "If this election does not pass -- and I'm not saying vote for [it] -- we may have to forgo other terminal improvements."
E-mail Bob Burtman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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