Christie: Port Authority legislation 'too narrow,' recommendations of panel better

By Steve Strunsky NJ Advance Media

In vetoing a bill intended to enhance accountability at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the governors of the two states said recommendations from a panel they had appointed would do more to fix problems at the behemoth bi-state agency.

Lawmakers who sponsored the vetoed legislation disagree, insisting that without requirements of the bill, including detailed annual financial reporting to lawmakers and an oath of fiduciary responsibility to the agency, the Port Authority will continue to be subject to the undue influence of the governors.

The Christie-Cuomo panel recommended:

  • Creation of a single chief executive officer position to replace the executive director and deputy executive director, who in practice have functioned more as co-directors representing their respective governors
  • A co-chairmanship or rotating chairmanship of the board of commissioners, rather than a chairman named by New Jersey and a vice chair from New York
  • Creation of an "office of the chair," made up of the co-chairs or the chairman at the time, whichever is decided, plus the chief operating officer, functioning as a "senior operating committee"
  • Increased involvement of commissioners in "departmental strategy, capital planning, risk management and significant long-range projects."
  • A public records policy that largely mirrors the laws of each state, and stricter limits on action taken in closed session
  • A new code of conduct governing ethical matters and conflicts of interest, and creation of a chief ethics and compliance officer position

Provisions of the vetoed bill included:

  • Mandatory annual financial reports by the Port Authority to both states' legislatures
  • An oath by commissioners of loyalty and fiduciary responsibility, swearing their actions will be consistent with the agency's mission and in the interests of the people it serves
  • Whistle blower provisions requiring employees to report what they believe to be impropriety to a revamped Port Authority inspector general's office, with protections for the employee against retaliation
  • An independent efficiency study to identify wasteful spending by the agency, and an independent analysis of the need for increased revenues prior to any future Port Authority toll increase

The panel's co-chairman, Port Authority Chairman John Degnan, said the recommendations did not need legislative approval, and the agency's board of commissioners would begin implementing them at its January meeting.

Cuomo's undated veto notice to the New York State Assembly, which the two governors' offices released late Saturday, stated, "This legislation, which imposes, among other things, new governance requirements on the PA, was drafted before the Special Panel's report, and conflicts with many portions of the Special Panel's report. The governance structure and other accountability measures recommended by the Special Panel will do a better job of improving accountability."

Christie's veto notice to the New Jersey State Senate, dated Friday and released last night, said the bill, S-2181, was well-intentioned but uninformed.

"The changes proposed in the bill necessarily lack the insights and extensive analysis contained in the Special Panel's Report, resulting in ideas that are too narrow, and lacking in the changes needed," Christie's veto notice stated.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and other sponsors said the vetoed accountability bill was the more substantial one, adding that the panel's recommendations do little to fix the fundamental problem of undue gubernatorial meddling with the agency, which they say the accountability bill would have addressed.

For example, Christie has been accused of directing Port Authority funds to pay for state roadway projects including the Pulaski Skyway and providing aid to municipalities with friendly elected officials. In addition, testimony and documents related to the September 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures suggest the closures were orchestrated by Christie-backed officials at the Port Authority and in the governor's office.

"You know, I just got an email from a friend," said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), referring to a comparison of the governors to irresponsible parents. "It said, 'Parents beat up on children and blame them for misbehaving. Parents appoint a children's commission to recommend how parents should have behaved all along. Parents promise to behave like they should have all along. Parents now take credit for reforming children.' "

Degnan, the panel and Port Authority chairman, said he "couldn't disagree more," with lawmakers' assertions that the recommendations failed to guard against improper influence by governors, pointing to the elimination of the executive director and deputy's positions, which filled by the governors.

"Any political presence in the senior operations management of the Port Authority has been eliminated," said Degnan.

In terms of financial accountability, Degnan said the agency's proposed budget is made available to lawmakers and the public, and he invited any official with concerns or questions to raise them.

“They say they want the information," he said. "If you say you have any problems, ask me.”

The governors were criticized for announcing their position on the Saturday after Christmas, when the public might be distracted, for which Degnan took responsibility. He said the target date for the report's completion was originally sometime around New Year's Day, but Cuomo faced a Saturday deadline for acting on the reform legislation, forcing panelists to scramble to complete the final version as soon as possible.

That happened to be Saturday, a date Degnan conceded was "regrettable."