House committee grills state port official

Published 5:16 pm Friday, February 23, 2007

After grilling the director of the state port at Gulfport for over an hour Thursday, angry members of the House Ports Committee were grumbling about dismantling the port board and investigating why Katrina recovery there is taking so long.

“I don’t want to offend anyone, but I am offended,” House Ports Chairman Rep. Billy Broomfield, D-Moss Point, told Gulfport Port Director Donald Allee. “We invited you here today … to find out why there is a problem in Gulfport and how the heck to fix it. You come here and give us a bunch of words that don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

Some lawmakers suspect the powers that be at the port of Gulfport, and some in state government, may be angling to change the port from a large shipping port to a recreational one, with casinos, cruise ships and shopping. There has been debate for years over which direction the port, the third largest container port in the country, should take.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Lawmakers are concerned that the port’s frozen chicken export operations — which shipped about $1.5 billion a year’s worth pre-Katrina — is still essentially shut down and work to rebuild freezers has not begun. They also said the port appears to be dragging its feet in completing a master plan required before the port can receive about $300 million in federal Katrina recovery funds.

“I believe in my heart of hearts you know exactly the plans for the port of Gulfport, but for whatever reason, you don’t want to share them with this committee,” Broomfield told Allee. “I promise you this committee will get to the bottom of why the port is not being what it can be and getting people back employed.”

Thursday’s meeting was a follow-up to one last week in which Broomfield made clear his displeasure that the port’s recovery appears to be lagging extremely far behind Pascagoula’s. He also vented his anger that Gulfport port officials have not communicated with him and that Allee didn’t show up for last week’s meeting, but sent an underling who didn’t appear to have many answers to lawmakers’ questions about the state-owned port.

Members of the committee at one point apologized to Allee for their anger, saying they know he’s “only the messenger.” Broomfield said he plans to have the State Port Authority at Gulfport, the five-member board of appointees that governs the port, before his committee soon for another hearing.

Broomfield and others questioned why the board has no members with maritime experience, but includes “real estate people and a car dealer.” Board members serve staggered, five-year terms. Three are appointed by the governor, one by the Harrison County Board of Supervisors and one by the mayor of Gulfport.