Comprehensive bi-state, bipartisan legislation to increase transparency at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was passed Thursday by the Assembly, giving it final legislative approval. The two approved bills now head to the governor’s desk.
Sponsors of the bills, Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Speaker Vincent Prieto, Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, Gordon Johnson, Tim Eustace, Joseph Lagana and Carmelo Garcia, noted that the legislation will introduce integrity to the bi-state agency.
“Long before ‘Bridge-gate’ was even a term, we have been pushing for reforms at the Port Authority to address the gross mismanagement and abuse of taxpayer funds that have been well-documented. We finally have a chance now to put real reforms in place, and we can’t squander this opportunity,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “These bills will help create unprecedented transparency and accountability at this multi-billion dollar agency in order to help protect the commuters of this state who have been paying the price for years of lack of oversight. I’m pleased my colleagues in the legislature have come together to support this overhaul, and I hope the governor will join us in doing the same.”
“Considering how much of their hard-earned money is in the hands of the Port Authority, the people of New Jersey have a right to know who is making key decisions, how those individuals are making decisions and how the public can be a part of that process,” said Prieto (D-Bergen/Hudson). “The unfortunate truth is that this agency clearly is a breeding ground for wrongdoing. That ends with these bills.”
“As documents regarding the George Washington Bridge came to light, we observed not only an egregious abuse of power but also disturbing practices that suggest the Port Authority truly is broken,” said Greenwald (D-Burlington/Camden). “This legislation is about implementing fundamental changes to restore the public trust, create a more efficient agency and better serve the people of New Jersey.”
“Eight words – ‘time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee’ – revealed a level of lawlessness and utter disregard for the public welfare that seems to be the norm at the Port Authority,” said Johnson (D-Bergen). “Clearly, the status quo has failed, and we have a duty to eliminate the potential for unethical behavior within the agency going forward.”
“We will not tolerate a culture in which public safety and commuters’ quality of life are subject to childish political games,” said Eustace (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Encompassing the fundamental idea that this agency owes the people of New Jersey nothing less than the best in service, this legislation introduces a comprehensive overhaul of how the Port Authority does business.”
“One of the most disconcerting elements surrounding the lane closures last year was the fact that a handful of individuals had the power to make a decision that would affect so many people without a single member of the public knowing about it,” said Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic). “The Port Authority is in dire need of the transparency which these bills bring to the table.”
“Effective reform like this creates transparency and holds those public servants working at the Port Authority accountable,” said Garcia (D-Hudson). “The magnitude of the power vested in this agency warrants elevated public scrutiny and opportunities for public engagement, which this legislation will facilitate.”
The first bill (A-3350), approved 74-0-1, would require the agency to be subject to the New Jersey Open Public Records Act and the New York Freedom of Information Law, making its records readily accessible upon request for inspection, copying or examination.
The Assembly also approved a second bill (A-3417), which passed 74-0-0 and would:
· Establish the Office of the Inspector General of the Port Authority.
The inspector general would receive and investigate complaints from any source regarding allegations of corruption or abuse and prepare and release written reports of investigations. The incumbent would also have the power to subpoena and enforce the attendance of witnesses as necessary. Any Port Authority officer or employee who knowingly fails to report wrongdoing to the inspector general would face removal from office or employment. The bill also would require the inspector general to create a whistleblower access and assistance program to facilitate reporting.
· Require Port Authority representatives to appear before a legislative committee to present testimony on any topic upon the request of either house of the state legislature of either New Jersey or New York.
· Require an independent efficiency study of the Port Authority every two years to identify any waste or abuse involving the agency.
· Require a needs assessment prior to any fee, toll, charge or fare increase.
· Require at least six public hearings prior to any vote taken by the board of commissioners to increase PATH fares or tolls for the use of any Port Authority bridge or tunnel.
At least three commissioners from each state must attend each public hearing.
· Require that meetings of the Port Authority be open to the public.
Provisions of the bill allow for closed meetings under limited circumstances, including meetings regarding: collective bargaining agreements, matters that would imperil the public safety if disclosed and pending or anticipated litigation or contract negotiations. Meeting agendas would be publicly available before each meeting, and minutes would be publicly available after each meeting.
· Require the Port Authority to establish audit and finance committees.
The agency would also be required to establish a governance committee that would be responsible for examining professional relationships between those appointed by the governor of New York and those appointed by the governor of New Jersey to ensure maximum communication, coordination and cooperation.
· Require the agency to submit a copy of an annual independent audit report to the governor, state comptroller and legislature of each state.
· Require each member of the board of commissioners to execute an acknowledgement of his or her duties and allegiance to the authority’s mission and the public interest upon taking the oath of office.
· Require that a contracting officer, designated by the agency, be responsible for compliance with the bill’s provisions and maintain accountability systems for agency property.
The bill would require the Port Authority to publicly advertise for bids before disposing or contracting for the disposal of property.
·Require the Port Authority to provide a report within 90 days of the end of its fiscal year detailing information including:
– an assessment of its internal control structure and procedures
– compensation and benefits issued to its commissioners and senior management
– operations and accomplishments
– certified fiscal reports
– projects undertaken during the previous year
– a listing of all real property having an estimated fair market value of $15,000 or more that the agency acquired or disposed of
– a description of the total amounts of assets and services bought or sold without competitive bidding
– a listing of material changes in operations and programs
– at a minimum, a four-year financial plan
– board performance evaluations
– a listing of any pending litigation to which the Port Authority is involved as a party
· Require the agency to maintain a record of all lobbying contacts, including the date and time of contact, identity of the lobbyist and a summary of the substance of the contact.
· Require commissioners to file annual financial disclosure statements.
· Require the agency to prepare a long-range capital strategy plan and a detailed, balanced annual operating budge
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s operations include: Newark Liberty, LaGuardia, Kennedy, Stewart, Atlantic City and Teterboro airports; the Port of New York and New Jersey; the PATH mass transit system; the World Trade Center; and numerous bridges and tunnels, including the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.
The bills take effect when New Jersey and New York enact substantively identical legislation. The New Jersey Senate gave both measures unanimous approval, with A-3350 and A-3417 passing in June and September, respectively. Both bills now go to Gov. Chris Christie. The New York Legislature also has passed both bills, which await the signature of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.