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 a Senate Committee.
The original law creating the Port Authority was enacted in 1921 and there has been little change since that time. The legislators’ bill, 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. With today’s action, the bill (S2181/A3147) next heads to the full New Jersey Senate.
“The Port Authority is a multi-billion-dollar agency with a budget that is larger than many states, but has acted with no accountability for far too long,” said Gordon (D-Bergen/Passaic). “This unprecedented bi-state effort will take the agency out of the dark ages by ensuring greater transparency, a higher level of accountability and increased public participation. These are long-overdue reforms that will have a transformative effect on the Port Authority and will inject public confidence in an agency that severely lacks it.”
“I believe that had these protections been in place at the Port Authority, many of the recent problems never would have occurred. We can no longer wait to implement the fundamental changes need to reform this bi-state agency. 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.”
“This is an important reform effort that will overhaul a bi-state agency that for too long has operated without accountability to the public, its customers or to the Legislatures in either state. It is one of the many bills that we will work on with our counterparts in New York,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “There is more work to do, and the joint legislative committee will continue the effort to determine what safeguards broke down to allow a critical 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 common sense and it is necessary. We knew this two years ago when we passed port authority reforms, and it is all the more important now.”
“The Port Authority has recently broached the subject of reform, which was unheard of before the lane closures,” added Senator Weinberg. “Its efforts are commendable, but I believe we cannot leave oversight and reform to this agency. It must be written in law and that requires identical legislation be passed and signed in both states. I look forward to moving this effort forward.”
“Today’s action is a critical step because the same bill must pass in both states and be signed by both Governors to change any laws governing the Port Authority,” said New York Assembly Member James Brennan, the sponsor of the identical legislation in New York, who testified today before the Senate State Government Committee. “The bill applies New York’s reforms of public authorities to the Port Authority, and will bring long-needed transparency and accountability to the agency.”
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 State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee today by a vote of 5-0, the bill (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 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.
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.