N.J. Assembly panel OKs bills aimed at boosting Port Authority reforms

By MICHAEL PHILLIS

Two bills aimed at making the Port Authority operate more transparently were approved by an Assembly committee Monday.

The measures were sparked in part by the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal. One bill would open the bi-state agency  up to each states’ public records laws and the other would force the authority to issue audits, adhere to basic public meetings laws and would formally create an office of inspector general (although one exists now at the agency). Both bills were passed out of the Assembly State and Local Government Committee on unanimous 5-0 votes.

 

Any reform package must be approved by both states’ legislatures and governors. New York’s legislature has already acted and now New Jersey must consider a bill with identical language. Two legislators from New York appeared in support of the reform package, which has already been approved by New Jersey’s full Senate. A vote in the Assembly is the last hurdle before the bills would be given to each state’s governors for their approval.

Monday’s committee vote, however, follows the introduction of another reform package authored by the co-chairman of the legislative investigation into the bridge scandal.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, authored a different plan that would diminish the role of each states’ governor over the Port Authority. His plan is far reaching and long – the bill clocks in at about 92 pages. Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, the investigative committee’s other co-chair, said of Wisniewski’s plan “I absolutely disagree with this approach.”

Wisniewski’s proposal would involve restarting the legislative process and convincing New York’s political apparatus to sign on. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Teaneck, said that what was approved Monday in committee represented a “realistic” approach to reforming the agency.

“This is the first time in decades that we are really in a position to make it happen,” said Huttle. “There is little confidence today in the Port Authority acting on behalf of the public and the only way to fix that is to reform the agency.”

Two events have sparked calls for reform – the politically motivated lane closure scandal at the George Washington Bridge that engulfed Governor Christie’s administration and toll increases back in 2011. All eight of the public meetings to discuss those toll hikes occurred on one day in a process that was highly criticized. The new bill would require meetings on toll hikes to be far more accessible to the public.

Neither governor has said publicly whether or not they would sign the legislation.

“There are some very substantial reforms we are proposing here,” said Sen. Bob Gordon, D-Fair Lawn. “They are not incremental or half measures as some have suggested.

Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, said he would support the proposals but said there wasn’t a strong enforcement mechanism if the Port Authority chose to disregard the new laws. That being said, he added that if the recent scandals actually changed the culture within the Port Authority, “then God bless them for tying up traffic.”

Email: phillis@northjersey.com