Legislation Imposes Comprehensive Transparency and Accountability Standards to Bi-State Agency; Includes New Requirements for Public Participation and Reporting
TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Bob Gordon and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg to impose comprehensive transparency and accountability standards at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was approved unanimously today by the full Senate.
The original law creating the Port Authority was enacted in 1921 and there has been little change since that time. The legislators’ bill (S2181/A3147), to provide for a systemic overhaul of the agency, represents the first major bi-state reform effort for the Port Authority since the GeorgeWashingtonBridge lane closings a year ago. An identical bill passed both houses of the New York Legislature unanimously in June. Since the Port Authority is a bi-state authority, identical legislation must be passed and enacted in both states before it can take effect.
“The Port Authority is a multi-billion-dollar agency with a budget larger than most states, but right now is accountable to only two people – the governors of both states. We can no longer wait to implement the fundamental changes needed to reform this bi-state agency,” said Senator Gordon (D-Bergen/Passaic). “This unprecedented bi-state effort will provide for a systemic overhaul of the Port Authority, ensuring greater transparency, accountability and increased public participation. These are important reforms that I believe would have prevented many of the past problems that occurred had they already been in place. I am encouraged by the overwhelming support we received from the Senate, and I look forward to seeing the legislation reach the Governor’s desk.”
“The Senate vote is a major step forward in the effort to reform the Port Authority, and brings us closer to implementing comprehensive accountability standards that both Democrats and Republicans recognize are critical for the effective operation of the agency,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “There is more to do and the joint legislative committee will continue its work to determine what safeguards broke down to allow a major piece of infrastructure to be used as a political tool, and to ensure it never happens again. However, bringing a greater level of transparency and accountability to the agency is necessary, and is an effort we can undertake immediately.”
Each state’s legislature has previously passed reform legislation, including a bill that was vetoed by Governor Christie in 2012. The reforms were passed after the Port Authority enacted toll hikes in 2011 with almost no public input and little justification. The public’s demand for reform has grown in the wake of recent scandals and problems surrounding the Port Authority, and this legislation represents an opportunity to improve transparency and accountability and to restore public confidence in the agency.
Approved by the New Jersey Senate today, the ‘Port Authority of NY/NJ Transparency and Accountability Act’ (S2181/A3417) would overhaul and modernize the operation of the Port Authority, including its Board of Commissioners. Among other requirements, the bill would:
- require an independent needs assessment before any toll increase, and at least six public hearings, attended by commissioners, at times and places convenient for commuters;
- open meetings to the public, require that commissioners vote on each agenda item separately, rather than in a sometimes vague package, and require that the public has access to commissioners’ meeting agendas at least 72 hours before a meeting;
- require all employees to report any suspected corruption, criminal activity or conflicts of interest to a newly empowered Port Authority Inspector General. The Inspector General is to establish whistleblower protections to facilitate employee reporting;
- prohibit a commissioner from discussing or voting on any matter in which there may be a conflict of interest;
- require the agency to develop a capital strategy plan that specifies upcoming projects and the expected cost and sources of funding, and issue an annual detailed report on operations and finances, including indebtedness and compensation of senior staff;
- require an independent efficiency study every two years;
- require the agency to establish new controls over the disposal of property, especially for property sold below fair market value;
- create lobbying restrictions, financial disclosure requirements, and limit the ability of the agency to organize subsidiary corporations without Legislative approval in both states;
- require the board of commissioners to provide direct oversight of the agency’s chief executive and senior management; oversee implementation of financial and management controls and operational decisions; establish policies concerning the compensation of officers and employees, as well as policies that protect employees who disclose information concerning acts of wrongdoing;
- require the board of commissioners to adopt a code of ethics; establish an audit, finance and a governance committee. The governance committee will examine professional relationships between appointees by the governor of New York and New Jersey to ensure maximum communication, coordinate and cooperation;
- Finally, at the request of either legislature, and for the first time, the senior leadership of the Port Authority would be required to appear before legislative committees and respond to questions.
The bill is a bipartisan and bi-state effort. It is sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle in the Assembly. The sponsors of the identical bill in New York are: New York State Assembly member James F. Brennan, chair of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions; New York State Senators Martin J. Golden, chair of Committee on Civil Service and Pensions, and Michael Ranzenhofer, chair of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions.
“The Port Authority has long operated with no accountability and as if it was exempt from basic government standards. The board recently has taken steps toward implementing reforms, which was unheard of before the lane closures,” added Senator Weinberg. “While I am encouraged by the action the commissioners have taken so far, I believe that oversight and reform cannot be left to the agency. It must be written in law and that requires identical legislation be passed and signed in both states.”
“The time has come to fix the Port Authority,” added Senator Gordon. “Our colleagues in the New York Legislature agreed and enacted this and a second reform bill unanimously. The bills are poised to go before Governor Cuomo, and undoubtedly, he will be guided by what New Jersey does. For that reason, the New Jersey Legislature must act without delay. It’s well past time that we bring this agency out of the dark ages to ensure a higher level of accountability and transparency at all levels.”
Senators Gordon and Weinberg are also the sponsors of legislation (S2183/A3350), already approved by the New Jersey Senate, to increase the transparency of Port Authority decision making by subjecting the agency to the public record disclosure laws of both states. The bill is sponsored by Assemblywoman Huttle and Assemblywoman Amy Handlin in the General Assembly. An identical bill was also approved unanimously by the New York Legislature.