Christie, Cuomo Reject Port Authority Overhaul Legislation

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (L) talks with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during memorial observances held at the site of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2014 in New York City.

Photo by Mark Lennihan-Pool/Getty Images

Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo vetoed legislation passed unanimously in both of their state legislatures that would change the management structure at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

Instead, Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor, and Cuomo, a New York Democrat, said they accepted revisions recommended by a special panel to reorganize the agency, and urged their respective legislatures and the Port Authority to implement them, according to a joint statement released today.

The report’s recommendations include consolidating the agency under a single chief executive officer; the appointment of a chief ethics and compliance officer; making public-records rules consistent with state laws; divesting real-estate holdings that aren’t vital to the agency’s mission, including commercial properties at the World Trade Center; and building a new bus terminal in Manhattan, according to the governors’ statement.

“The changes proposed in the bill necessarily lack the insights and extensive analysis contained in the special panel’s report, resulting in ideas that are too narrow, and lacking in the changes needed for reform,” Christie said in a veto message.

Lawmakers, transportation advocates and government watchdog groups have pressed for a housecleaning at the 93-year-old agency since e-mails came to light showing the involvement of Christie allies in engineering traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge as political retribution.

Ethics Probes

Both governors have been facing ethics inquiries. Christie, who’s said he’s considering a run for the White House in 2016, has been under scrutiny by a federal prosecutor and a New Jersey legislative committee about the traffic jams engineered on the Hudson River span in September 2013. In Manhattan, the U.S. attorney is examining the Cuomo administration over its meddling and shutdown of an anti-corruption panel.

“This is bad judgment on the part of two governors where both houses of each of their legislatures passed something overwhelmingly,” New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck who co-sponsored the bill, said by telephone.

The Port Authority runs the New York area’s three major airports, four bridges, the bus terminal, commuter rail, two tunnels and ports, and owns the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.

Seeking Transparency

“The veto is without merit,” New York Assemblyman Jim Brennan, a Democrat, said in a statement. “The measures included in the bill were no different than those already being applied to other public authorities. Each measure was aimed at providing greater transparency and accountability to an authority that has come under growing public scrutiny over the years, as abuses and scandals accumulated.”

The bills would have directed the Port Authority to file annual audits, protect whistle-blowers and require officials to appear before legislative committees. They also would have ordered the authority to hold at least six public hearings before raising tolls, required commissioners to file financial-disclosure statements and maintain records of all lobbying contacts, and made the authority subject to state open-records laws.

Brennan said in the statement that he’ll work with lawmakers in both states on Port Authority overhauls.

Scrutiny of the agency by New Jersey lawmakers started in 2011, following approval of a five-year toll-increase plan that they said didn’t give commuters ample time to comment. In 2012, an audit ordered by both governors called the Port Authority a “challenged and dysfunctional” organization in need of a complete overhaul.

Bill Sponsor

New Jersey Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, a Republican from Westwood who served on the panel investigating the closings and sponsored the bill, said she was surprised by the governors’ moves.

“Am I disappointed that the bill was vetoed? Yes,” she said in a telephone interview after the announcement. “A lot of us worked very hard on it from both sides of the aisle. That being said, I’m going to reserve judgment on the overall rationale and the reason until I have a chance to review” the report.

Federal and state investigators are also looking into whether Christie improperly directed the Port Authority to spend $1.8 billion on the Pulaski Skyway and other road projects, which aren’t Port Authority assets.

Following the bridge scandal, the Port Authority took steps to improve governance and public disclosure. The agency adopted changes to its freedom-of-information policy to abide by the laws of New York or New Jersey, depending on which one is deemed to be more favorable to disclosure.

Public Comment

The agency, which proposed a $7.8 billion budget for 2015, is also posting detailed meeting agendas, taking roll-call votes from commissioners and providing more opportunity for public comment. Previously, commissioners would vote on packages of resolutions without public discussion.

A coalition of good-government groups, including the Citizens Union, Reinvent Albany, New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, NYPIRG, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said in a statement that the reforms in the legislation were fundamental.

“It’s obvious that the Port Authority has lost its way and needs to become a more open and responsible institution,” the groups said. “The commission created to review the Port Authority has recommended other measures, but this should not preclude these needed reforms.”

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