The Record - Analysis: Christie's approach on Port Authority different from his handling of other agencies

By John Reitmeyer, The Record

Chris Christie launched his first term as governor in 2010 by putting pressure on what he said was New Jersey’s “shadow government” of unelected authorities, boards and commissions. He vetoed a $5 million contract at one agency. He rejected a $1.27 million change order at another. And he even said no to a $37,500 lobbying deal.

But the Port Authority, a bi-state agency with decades of political influence and a budget of more than $7 billion — larger than many states’ — has been a different story for the governor.

“I think to characterize the Port Authority as out of control is incorrect,” Christie told reporters during a news conference last month as the controversy around the September closure of lanes at the George Washington Bridge swirled, and after the mayor of Fort Lee suggested the lanes were closed to exact political retribution for not endorsing the governor’s reelection campaign last year.

“Listen, there are always going to be challenges in a bi-state agency,” Christie said. “There will always be challenges in an agency of that size.”

For several years — and even as questions have been raised about patronage, lucrative employee perks, a lack of public accountability and indiscriminate toll hikes — Christie has relied on a steady flow of revenue from the Port Authority.

Those funds — redirected to the state from the Port Authority’s share of funds for the ARC tunnel after Christie killed that trans-Hudson commuter-rail project — helped stave off a gas-tax increase, a move that burnished Christie’s record as an anti-tax Republican. They went to pay for local road improvements and other projects as Christie won the support of some unions, and also to help cover the cost of pet projects for local officials. Some of them, including many Democrats, endorsed Christie in last year’s successful reelection campaign, which focused on a message of bipartisan leadership.

Now, even more than ever, as investigations into the controversy expand, and as new questions about the role Christie’s campaign staff and close aides may have played in the affair, the governor’s relationship with the Port Authority stands in contrast with his handling of other independent authorities.

The governor, who publicly pressured and forced out key officials at agencies that include the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission and the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, has stood by David Samson, the former state attorney general and close confidant that Christie appointed to the Port Authority board in 2010. Samson serves as the agency’s chairman.

Christie appeared to be much more aggressive when confronting another bi-state agency in September 2010.

The governor personally went down to the Delaware River Port Authority’s headquarters in Camden to put then-agency chief executive John Mathesseun on notice that changes needed to be made, including to ethics policies.

“It’s game time now,” Christie said then. “I’m running out of time on the tick-tock of my patience for what’s gone on at this place.”

The Wanaque-based North Jersey District Water Supply Commission was also targeted, leading to the ouster of its executive director and several commissioners.

And Christie’s most overwhelming housecleaning occurred at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission in 2011. The governor forced out former Edgewater Mayor Bryan Christiansen from his $313,000 executive director’s job, as well as six of the Newark agency’s seven commissioners.

More than 70 employees at the agency were fired after Christie’s own executive director took over.

“It’s no secret the PVSC has violated the taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ trust,” Christie said at the time.

Christie’s zeal for taking on government authorities, boards and commissions was also demonstrated in the smaller-ticket items he stymied, the type of modest political waste that often flies well below the radar in New Jersey.

Christie rejected a $37,500 contract awarded to a politically connected lobbying firm by the Delaware River Port Authority. He also vetoed 3 percent raises the state Redevelopment Authority was preparing to give out. And $25,000 in vendor payments from the Delaware River and Bay Authority were shot down as well.

“My administration will continue to scrutinize the actions of the many boards and authorities in our state and root out waste,” Christie said while vetoing the 2010 budgets of two often overlooked agencies that foster the interests of the state horse-racing industry: the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association of New Jersey and the Standardbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association of New Jersey.

Key appointees

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is the largest bi-state agency in the region and one that the governor has direct control over along with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In addition to Samson, Christie also named in 2010 former Republican state Sen. Bill Baroni to serve as the agency’s deputy executive director, the highest post for the New Jersey side.

And The Record reported in early 2012 that Christie placed dozens of his own loyalists at the Port Authority, which operates the region’s major airports, seaports, Hudson River crossings, several bus terminals and the PATH train system, and controls the World Trade Center.

One of those new hires was David Wildstein, the former political blogger and Livingston mayor whose August email exchange with former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly — she wrote, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” he responded, “Got it” — is now at the center of the lane-closure controversy and several investigations.

And when the Port Authority proposed a significant hike in tolls and fares in 2011, generating a groundswell of criticism after holding public hearings all on the same day and at hours largely inconvenient to commuting motorists, it was Christie who signed off on the increases and also publicly defended the agency’s actions.

“The problem is that we have debt to pay and that we have projects to complete,” Christie said at the time. “I don’t think anybody would tell us ‘Stop working on the World Trade Center building right now.’ ”

“I don’t think anybody would tell us ‘Don’t begin the repairs on the George Washington Bridge, let’s roll the dice and take a chance,’” he said. “These are the realities we’ve been left with.”

And it was Christie in 2012 who rejected a bill that sponsors say would have forced the Port Authority to be more transparent and accountable to the public after unpopular toll and fare hikes that Christie defended and signed off on in 2011.

“The fundamental problem here is dysfunction in the organization of the Port Authority,” said state Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, a sponsor of the legislation. “That’s why we introduced this bill.”

“We had a piece of legislation that was drafted correctly and methodically and this governor decided to veto it and protect and insulate the culture of the Port Authority rather than the commuters and the people of New Jersey,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, another of the bill’s sponsors.

The governor was asked by The Record during an interview in early 2012 about his handling of the Port Authority, whose reputation took another hit over the way it hiked the tolls in 2011.

Christie conceded that, given his aggressive efforts to clean up the other authorities that make up New Jersey’s shadow government, he didn’t have “any excuses anymore.”

“It’s my time to get my arms around this agency now,” he said at the time.

A new direction

There are signs now that Christie is getting more aggressive with the Port Authority after the bridge-lane controversy.

Christie sent Deb Gramiccioni, his former deputy chief of staff for policy and planning, to the Port Authority after Baroni and Wildstein resigned. As director of Christie’s authorities unit, it was Gramiccioni who led the administration’s effort to reform the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, North Jersey District Water Supply Commission and the other agencies.

“Last month, Governor Christie appointed a new leader at the Port Authority with a proven record of rooting out corruption and reforming government agencies to help lead the agency,” said Christie spokesman Colin Reed.

Jameson Doig, a professor emeritus at Princeton University and an expert on the Port Authority and its history, said Christie is “not without duplicity” when it comes to his handling of the agency.

He’s attacked smaller authorities for cronyism while at the same time sending political appointees with strong campaign résumés but much weaker public policy credentials, such as Wildstein, to the Port Authority, where they control huge pots of money, Doig said.

“It does seem to me to underscore the danger of allowing governors to send in people who are qualified because of their work on campaigns,” Doig said.

“That helps you try to steer the agency’s funding into directions you like,” he said.

But to be fair, he said, Christie isn’t the first to use the agency for political reasons. That started in the 1990s and has occurred under administrations from both states and both political parties.

“What is needed is to have governors appoint commissioners who have a degree of independence that many commissioners had over the years,” Doig said.

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