ON THE heels of the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, controversial toll hikes and questionable deals, there finally are legislative initiatives to rein in the often omnipotent Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Bills passed by lawmakers in both Trenton and Albany don't go as far as some critics would like, but they are important steps in making the authority more accountable to the public it serves. Both Governor Christie and his New York counterpart, Andrew Cuomo, should sign the bills. In Christie's case, he must sign it by Dec. 28.
On Dec. 9, state Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, both of whom are prime sponsors of the bill, joined with New York officials in urging both governors to sign the legislation.
One of the bill's key provisions would subject the Port Authority to open public meeting and records laws. Both New Jersey and New York have such measures, but they don't apply to a bi-state agency such as the Port Authority. The bill would correct that.
Adopting the bill would make a big difference in how the authority operates. For instance, in 2011 when the authority sharply raised tolls on its bridges and tunnels — they will reach $15 next December for cash customers — the increase was pushed through without adequate public discussion. There were public hearings, but all were held on the same day at inconvenient times.
That procedure would change if the bill becomes law. At least six public meetings would need to be held on any future toll increases, with no more than one hearing held on one day. Moreover, at least three Port Authority commissioners from New York and New Jersey would be required to attend each hearing. If commissioners are going to vote to raise tolls, they should hear directly from the commuters who would be adversely affected by such action.
The bill also would require that most Port Authority board meetings be open at all times, that accurate minutes be kept, that agendas be published in advance and that the public be given a chance to speak at every meeting. Additionally, if commissioners recuse themselves from voting on any matter, that recusal must be noted in the minutes. There recently have been cases when commissioners' recusals were not publicly noted.
The reforms also would require the authority to submit detailed public budgets and to undergo annual independent audits.
There is nothing the least bit revolutionary about any of these proposals. Many municipal governing bodies and school boards have been following them for years. The fact that lawmakers in two states must act to compel the Port Authority to institute routine transparency standards is ample evidence of how rogue the agency has become.
Some lawmakers want to change some of the authority's fiscal practices and the way in which commissioners and other key officials are selected. While those ideas may have merit, the pending bills are a first step.
Christie, upon taking office, talked about instituting a greater level of accountability at the authority. Signing the bill before him would begin that process.