Texas Railroad Commission chief’s ouster raises open meetings question

By Mike Lee
E&E News
Originally published Sept. 20, 2017

The head of Texas’ oil and gas regulator resigned this week under pressure from one of the elected officials she reports to, touching off a dispute over whether her dismissal had been properly handled.

Kim Corley, who has been executive director of the Texas Railroad Commission since last year, said she was abruptly summoned Monday to commission Chairwoman Christi Craddick’s office. Craddick, accompanied by two of the commission’s lawyers, told her she could resign or the agency would begin the process of firing her, Corley said in an interview.

“She said, ‘We’re just moving in a different direction,'” Corley said.

Corley told E&E News in a telephone interview that she asked to resign with an effective date of Oct. 15.

Craddick is one of three elected commissioners who oversee the Railroad Commission, and they typically have to vote on hiring and firing the executive director.

Craddick apparently acted against Corley without notifying her colleagues, prompting Commissioner Ryan Sitton to confront her during the commission’s televised meeting yesterday.

Sitton said he plans to ask the state attorney general whether Craddick violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.

“I’m really surprised, disappointed,” Sitton said in an interview after the meeting. Craddick “wants a puppet for an executive director that’s going to do whatever she wants,” he said.

Craddick said during yesterday’s meeting that she offered Corley a choice.

“She may decide not to make that choice, she may show up to work today,” Craddick said, according to a recording of the meeting.

Craddick declined a request for comment after the meeting but issued a statement through a spokeswoman saying: “Under the advisement of our general counsel, we followed the rules and procedures of employment and open meetings laws.”

Under Texas law, government bodies like the Railroad Commission can discuss personnel issues in closed-door sessions but have to take any votes or other official actions in public. They also cannot discuss state business outside of a public meeting.

If Craddick was simply warning Corley that her job was on the line, that wouldn’t necessarily violate state law, said Bill Aleshire, an attorney who specializes in Texas government law. However, he said it could be illegal for Craddick to discuss Corley’s employment with another commissioner, unless the conversation happened in a properly posted meeting.

The Railroad Commission, despite its name, oversees the oil and gas, coal mining and pipeline industries in Texas. That makes it one of the most powerful, if least visible, government agencies in the state. Its three commissioners are elected to six-year terms and are frequently mentioned as candidates for higher statewide office.

Corley, a former executive at Shell Oil Co. and other energy companies, was hired in 2015 and started work in 2016 after the previous executive director, Milton Rister, retired. Craddick, Sitton and then-Commissioner David Porter voted unanimously to hire her (Energywire, Dec. 15, 2015).

Corley assisted the commission through a ticklish legislative review earlier this year, helping the agency fend off calls for reform from Democratic legislators and environmentalists (Energywire, May 19.)

Since then, Corley has tried to solve some of the agency’s long-standing computer problems and improve its performance review system, Sitton said.

The commissioners have never held a performance review for Corley and didn’t raise any issues about her work this week, Corley said. Like most state employees, she didn’t have an employment contract and could be terminated even without cause.

“Somebody said as I was walking out — it takes three to hire you and one to fire you,” she said.

Reporter Mike Soraghan contributed.

Reprinted from Energywire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2017. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net. For the original story click here [https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060061171]