N.J. Lawmakers say Port Authority reform bills would curb abuses by governors

By Steve Strunsky NJ.com

Sponsors of two bills intended to reform the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey say the measures would curb abuses by the governors or their proxies through enhanced transparency and accountability, without limiting the governors' veto or appointment powers over the agency. 

State Sen. Robert Gordon and state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle are the principal authors of bi-state Port Authority reform bills that have been approved by both houses of the New York State legislature and the New Jersey State Senate, and are scheduled for a vote of the full Assembly on Nov. 13.

Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. Andew Cuomo of New York would each have to sign the bills for them to take effect.

Huttle and Gordon discussed the legislation during a Star-Ledger editorial board meeting on Thursday. It was six days after Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), introduced what he called a "top-to-bottom" Port Authority reform bill that would strip the governors of their power to veto actions of the Port Authority board, reduce the governors' number of board appointments from six each to three, and abolish the custom by which the governors divvy up selection of the agency's top leadership. 

Wisniewski says the agency needs comprehensive reform, first and foremost in the way it is governed and by whom. For example, the traffic-snarling Sept. 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures were orchestrated by Christie-backed agency officials believed by some to be retaliating against the mayor of Fort Lee for failing to endorse the governor's re-election bid. Christie has said he had no advance knowledge of the closures.

It was the lane closures and the subsequent Bridgegate scandal, which exposed inter-state rivaly, dysfunction and abuse at the agency, that prompted the latest wave of Port Authority reform legislation. 

The three lawmakers say they agree in principal with the provisions of each of their bills. 

"I think we both support much of what's in John's bill," Gordon said. "Clearly, there needs to be some changes in governance to end this toxic rivalry between the two states." 

But Wisniewski says the Gordon-Huttle legislation does not go far enough, while Gordon and Huttle counter that Wisniewski's will go nowhere, since no governor would sign away his power.

One of the Huttle-Gordon bills, A3350, would subject the Port Authority to New York and New Jersey's state freedom of information laws, requiring the agency to turn over any documents deemed public by either of the two states. People who believe their document request was wrongly denied would be able to sue the agency under either state law.

The other bill, A3417, contains provisions including mandatory detailed annual financial reports from the agency to legislators of both states, as well as a whistleblower provision requiring agency employees to report impropriety to the agency's inspector general's office while providing them with protection against retribution.

Huttle said the whistle blower provision could have prevented the GWB lane closures if it had been in place at the time, by obligating the agency's bridge, tunnels and terminals director to report that he had been ordered by one of the Christie-backed officials, David Wildstein, to close the lanes without going through the proper channels or making the necessary notifications. 

"With a piece of this bill, could we have prevented Bridgegate? I would say yes," said Huttle.

She added that financial reporting requirements in her legislation might have prevented the Port Authority's 2010 purchase of property on the Military Ocean Terminal at Bayonne, which critics said was a thinly veiled fiscal bailout of the city, with the land acquired at an inflated price and still unused by the Port Authority.

Wisniewski conceded the point, up to a point.

"It is entirely conceivable that reporting requirements could have resulted in people knowing about MOTB sooner," he said. "The operative term is could have."