By Steve Strunsky NJ Advance Media
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Saturday night that they would "embrace" Port Authority reforms recommended by a panel they appointed in May, but would veto a key piece of reform legislation adopted overwhelmingly by the legislature of both states.
Measures recommended by the Special Panel on the Future of the Port Authority include elimination of the positions of executive director and deputy executive director, who in recent decades have functioned essentially as co-directors, each representing the governor who appointed him or her
Critics say the divided leadership has led to interstate rivalry and even hostility within the agency, exemplified by the September 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures, which were implemented by New Jersey officials with the knowledge of the deputy executive director, while the executive director, a New Yorker, was deliberately kept in the dark.
The panel recommended that the agency be run by a single “chief executive officer” appointed by the Board of Commissioners following a nationwide search for the best qualified candidate.
But lawmakers were angered by word they said they received from Republcan Christie and Democrat Cuomo that the governors would veto a more far-reaching reform bill intended to enhance accountability at the agency by requiring an oath or fiduciary responsibility by commissioners and annual detailed financial reporting to both legislatures.
Cuomo vetoed the New York bill just before midnight. Had he not vetoed it, the bill would have become law in New York State, though their identical New Jersey versions would have required Christie's signature -- or his failure to act by a deadline next month.
“We crossed party lines to pass Port Authority reform, and they crossed party lines to obstruct it,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who called the governors “spineless” for revealing their veto plans on the Saturday night after Christmas, when the public might not notice.
Christie lauded the reforms the panel recommended.
“These changes reflect the need for a profound and necessary reimagining of the Port Authority governing structure, operations, and transparency in its oversight of the world’s largest transportation and commerce network,” Christie stated in a joint announcement with Cuomo.
A similar recommendation by the panel was for the elimination of the chairman and vice chairman positions, who likewise have acted as representatives of New Jersey and New York, respectively. Rather, the panel, which includes current Port Authority Chairman John Degnan and Vice Chairman Scott Rechler, recommended two options: co-chairmen, one from each state; or a rotating chairmanship that would change from one state to the every year.
The governors also said they intended to sign legislation approved overwhelmingly by the legislatures of both states allowing people to sue the Port Authority for documents under the freedom of information laws of either state, once certain language had been changed in the legislation.
The governors' announcement was silent on the accountability bill, and Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak, who was listed as the contact for the announcement, did not return requests for comment on the measure.
State Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said the only reason the governors would veto such a bill would be that they do not want to enhance accountability of any agency they jointly control through their appointment of commissioners and veto power over board actions.
"There is no legitimate reason for them not to sign" both bills, Weinberg said.
Lawmakers weren't alone in condemning the accountability veto. Regional watchdog groups including the Citizens Union, New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, the New York Public Interest Research Group, Reinvent Albany, & the Tri-State Transportation Campaign issued a joint statement.
"It is obvious that the Port Authority has lost its way, and Governors Cuomo and Christie have now vetoed a bill which was unanimously supported by the state legislatures of New York and New Jersey, numerous public stakeholders and editorial boards," the groups stated. "This much-needed legislation would have put in place fundamental reforms necessary to make the Port Authority far more accountable."