Port Authority reform bills approved by N.J. Assembly panel

By Steve Strunsky NJ.com 

A pair of bipartisan bills that would subject the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to more expansive open public records laws, protect whistle blowers, and require annual reports to lawmakers were approved today by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee.

“As the legislature continues to investigate last year’s unexplained George Washington Bridge lane closures, it’s critical that we address the root of the problem – that this overwhelmingly flawed agency has no sense of accountability whatsoever,” Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), the bills' principal sponsor, said in a statement.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a co-sponsor, praised the bill in ambitious terms: “The unfortunate truth is that this agency clearly is a breeding ground for wrongdoing. That ends with these bills.”

Republican co-sponsors Amy Handlin, Alison McHose and Holly Schepisi, also applauded the committee's passage of the two bills, which have already been approved by the state Senate, and could be scheduled by Prieto for a full vote of the Assembly as early as Nov. 13.

One of today's 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, A3417, contains provisions including mandatory annual reports by the agency to both states' legislatures, and whistle blower protections for employees who report what they believe to be impropriety.

The bills were in response to the so-called Bridgegate scandal that grew out of the George Washington Bridge lane closures of September 2013, which exposed division within the bi-state agency.

"This overwhelmingly flawed agency has no sense of accountability whatsoever."
The bills must be approved by both states' legislatures and signed by both governors.

A Port Authority spokesman noted that the agency adopted its own public records policy pledging the agency to abide by the two states' laws, with an appeal process involving a panel of agency officials, and then binding arbitration.

The hearing was just days after Thursday's introduction of a Port Authority reform package by one of the legislature's most outspoken advocate of Port Authority reform, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), whose legislation would go much further than the bills passed by committee today.

Wisniewski's legislation would reduce the governors' number of appointees to the agency's 12-member board from six each to three, apportioning the rest to lawmakers and a citizens advisory committee, and would strip the governors of their veto power over board actions.
Wisniewski's bill also contains reporting, public records and whistle blower measures.

But State Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), who sponsored the Senate versions of today's bills, said the two governors would never sign Wisniewski's legislation, essentially ceding key powers over the Port Authority, an agency that has served as a cash cow for them and past governors. And on Friday Gordon labelled Wisniewski's bill as "dead on arrival."

Wisniewski, who believes many of the Port Authority's problems result from too much interference by the governors, said he was "disappointed" that Gordon preferred the "status quo."