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Transportation Experts Urge Bistate Blue-Ribbon Panel to Fix Port Authority

Martin Robins
Martin E. Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University's Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Policy Institute.

Calling for the creation of a bistate commission to reform the embattled Port Authority, two of New Jersey’s leading transportation policy experts yesterday said legislation proposed by Assembly Republicans ignores the lessons of Bridgegate by giving too much power to the state’s governors.

Martin E. Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Policy Institute, and Jameson W. Doig, author of the definitive history of the Port Authority, endorsed Assembly Republican proposals to enhance ethics, transparency, and financial disclosure at the Port Authority.

But Robins and Doig both sharply criticized the logic of the main reform the GOP legislators proposed to protect the agency from political interference.

“I agree with the Assembly Republicans that the Port Authority needs a single line of command and not an executive director appointed by the governor of one state and a deputy executive director appointed by the other,” said Robins. “But requiring the governors of both states to sign off on the appointment of all director-level employees is a wrong-headed idea. We should be thinking of ways to tamp down gubernatorial control, not increase it.”

Doig, a former Princeton University professor whose Empire on the Hudson is the definitive history of the Port Authority, agreed that it would be “a bad idea to let the governors review the selection of lower-level executives. It would make it more likely that the governors would horse-trade: “I get my guy here, and you get the next one.’ It’s an awful idea.”

The proposal to give the governors veto power over director-level appointments at the Port Authority was one of a series of recommendations for reform issued yesterday by Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) and the four GOP Assembly members of the Joint Select Committee on Investigation, which is probing the Bridgegate scandal.

But Robins and Doig asserted that an independent review of the Port Authority by a blue-ribbon commission made up of leading transportation policy experts from both New Jersey and New York is needed, rather than having each state enact its own legislation.

Greater Transparency

Under the leadership of Democratic Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, New York state enacted sweeping reforms in 2009 designed to “end the secrecy” at its authorities, but the reforms did not apply to the Port Authority because New Jersey did not enact the same legislation, Robins noted. Similarly, any New Jersey legislation would not apply to the Port Authority if New York’s governor and legislature did not follow suit.

“What we really need here is not just a quick dashing off of legislative points, but the forging of a bistate consensus that can only come from states really wrestling with what needs to happen here,” Robins said. “The states should form a bistate commission with a mixture of legislators and civic leaders to propose reforms, and the most important thing is that current and future governors should be required to abide by the principles that come out of that process.”

Doig said the independent review panel should include experts like former Port Authority Executive Directors Peter Goldmark and Steven Berger, who served in the 1980s and 1990s before political interference grew rampant at the bistate agency, as well as respected former Port Authority commissioners who understand the inner workings of the agency.

What is needed, Doig and Robins agreed, is to restore the professional independence of the Port Authority, not create a new system that vests even more -- albeit shared -- patronage power in the governors of New York and New Jersey.

“We have to put an end to the custom that New York appoints the Port Authority executive director and New Jersey the chairman,” Robin said. “It’s outmoded and unhelpful. The 12 commissioners should be independent of the governors and they should select the most worthy commissioner to serve as chairman. The executive director should be chosen by a national search through the world of public administration.”

What the Assembly Republican plan did not really address, Robins said, was the issue of patronage.

Doig agreed. “If you want to see how serious the Port Authority is about reform, the question you should ask is how far they got in getting rid of the 60 patronage appointees put in by Chris Christie,” said Doig, who is now teaching government at Dartmouth College.

The Bridgegate scandal has consumed the Christie’s governorship in the six weeks since the governor acknowledged that Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly directed the shutdown of toll lanes leading into the George Washington Bridge for four days in apparent retaliation against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection.

Port Authority Executive Director Bill Baroni and his top aide, David Wildstein, who personally supervised the lane closures, have resigned. Christie’s campaign manager Bill Stepien and Kelly were fired, and one of Kelly’s aides resigned last week. And yesterday, Port Authority police union leader Paul Nunziato, whose union members told stalled motorists to call the Fort Lee mayor to complain, told union members he was taking a temporary leave of absence because of the Bridgegate probe, the Cliffview Pilot reported.

Kelly and Stepien have a date in state Superior Court on March 11 to defend their right to invoke the Fifth Amendment and remain silent in refusing to provide evidence sought by the Joint Select Committee on Investigation.

It was that 12-member committee whose four Assembly Republican members -- Assemblywomen Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth) and Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) and Assemblymen Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris) and Greg McGuckin (R-Ocean) -- held a press conference in Trenton yesterday to say that recommendations for reforms at the Port Authority and other independent authorities should not wait until the conclusion of investigations by their committee, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and other entities.

“We will continue to diligently investigate the facts surrounding the Port Authority, but now is the time to be proactive and offer practical solutions,” Schepisi said. “These ideas provide the framework for comprehensive reforms that should govern our bistate authorities and agencies.”

One of the most important -- and politically charged -- recommendations that the four Assembly Republicans made was to make it a legal obligation for commissioners and employees to fulfill the mission of the authority.

Serving Two Masters

“It’s impossible to serve two masters. While it’s important that governors appoint members who share their vision, political appointees must understand they serve and are responsible to the public,” the four Assembly Republicans concluded in an observation that directly conflicts with the public statements of Wildstein and Port Authority Chairman David Samson that their mission was to represent the interests of the New Jersey governor on the bistate agency.

“We should require that all state’s authority board members have an explicit obligation to fulfill the mission of the authority itself -- not the people who appointed them or their own financial interests. We should require commissioners and top-level employees to sign oaths pledging that their fiduciary responsibility to the agency supersedes all other interest,” the Assembly Republicans wrote in what could be taken as a shot at Samson, who has come under fire repeatedly in recent weeks for alleged conflicts of interest in past Port Authority decisions benefiting clients represented by his law firm.

In a direct response to the Bridgegate traffic jams, the Republicans proposed that “abusing one’s authority to harm members of the public out of such motives as spite, revenge, retribution, intimidation, or personal and political gain should be a crime” punishable by up to 18 months in jail, a fine up to $10,000, and the loss of employment and all benefits.

Robins agreed that such actions should be a crime, but suggested that the punishment should be harsher -- up to five years in prison and up to a $100,000 fine -- as a deterrent. In any case, such actions already could be subject to official misconduct charges already punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The GOP legislators suggested the establishment of “truly independent monitors at all bistate agencies armed with subpoena and other investigative powers to review the agencies’ practices and make public their findings with regular reporting to the legislatures of both states,” while Robins said he would prefer to strengthen the Port Authority’s Office of the Inspector-General, citing the success of such offices in rooting out corruption and inefficiencies in the federal government.

The Assembly Republicans noted that “many authorities have developed a culture of arrogance, ignoring audits designed to improve their operations and losing taxpayers’ money and commuters’ tolls” -- a possible reference to the massive 2011 Port Authority toll hikes that the New York and New Jersey AAA chapters are challenging in court.

“The independent nature of bistate authorities has created a semi-secret fourth branch of government with little or no accountability while billions of public dollars are spent,” the GOP lawmakers wrote. “We should require the publication of detailed information on each authority’s contracting, debt, personnel, regulatory, and other activities on a website giving the public, the media and the Legislature real-time information.”

They urged that the sunshine laws of both New Jersey and New York apply to the Port Authority and other bistate agencies, and called for detailed financial disclosure. “Authority executives, commissioners, and political appointees should have their financial disclosure forms posted on-line,” McGuckin said. “The public should know up front what interests these decision-makers have without having to search for them. They should have nothing to hide and this information should be readily accessible.”

The GOP group also called for regular ethics training and strengthening the whistleblower law to encourage the reporting of transgressions.

Assembly Democratic spokesman Tom Hester was dismissive of the motives of the Assembly Republican foursome in issuing a detailed reform proposal so early in the Joint Select Committee on Investigation’s probe into the causes of the Bridgegate scandal and other allegations of abuses of power and conflicts of interest at the Port Authority.

“It’s nice to see the Republicans -- who were less than supportive of Port Authority reform last session -- have finally seen the light," he said. As always, all ideas will be reviewed, but the investigation into this threat to public safety and abuse of government power will also continue.”

Hester noted that the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a Port Authority reform bill that would have accomplished many of the goals of the Republican plan, including the publication of detailed financial data on agency contracts, financial disclosure statements for officials, and the requirement that Port Authority officials sign an oath requiring them to fulfill the mission of the bistate agency. The Democratic bill also would have required an extensive schedule of public hearings before the imposition of toll hikes.

Christie, however, conditionally vetoed the bill, and Senate Republicans refused to supply any votes to override his veto, even though six Republican senators had voted for the measure when it first passed – which would have been enough to enact the bill over Christie’s objection.

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