Christie scandal highlights Port mess

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"There is tension and always has been between New York and New Jersey on the allocation of resources at the Port Authority," said New Jersey governor Chris Christie, during his mea culpa press conference at the State House in Trenton today.

A scandal in which Christie's appointees to the authority deliberately caused traffic jams as an act of political retribution has done more than endanger his presidential aspirations. It's also exposed, yet again, the decades-long creep of politics into the operations of the bistate Port Authority.

"The only way this can be fixed is with a disaster like just happened," said Robert Boyle, who served as executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey under George Pataki. "And we ought to seize this opportunity."

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is jointly controlled by the New York and New Jersey governors. Its enormous operational responsibilities include all of the major regional airports, and several of the smaller ones; many of the region's bridges and tunnels; its container ports and bus terminals; the PATH system and the World Trade Center site.

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According to the by-laws, here's how it's supposed to work: "the Executive Director shall hold executive staff responsible and accountable for making financial, management, and operational decisions in compliance with the policies established by the Board of Commissioners."

He can  "make permanent appointments to the Port Authority staff;" promote and demote staff; and also, this is key, fire them. 

The Board of Commissioners, meanwhile, handles strategic and policy decisions.

That's not actually how it works, though.

Tradition of indeterminate age has it that the New York governor gets to pick the executive director and the New Jersey governor gets to pick the chairman of the board.

Tradition of a more recent vintage, a "bad tradition" in Boyle's estimation, also has it that the governor of New Jersey gets to appoint a deputy executive director to work under the New York governor's executive director.

In other words, the operational heirarchy gets scrambled. 

In this case, that deputy executive director was Bill Baroni, one of the principal participants in the George Washington Bridge scandal.

That tradition began 1995, when Pataki wanted to appoint an executive director named George Marlin, who New Jersey's then-governor Christie Whitman didn't think was up to the job. She only agreed to the appointment on the condition that she get to install a deputy executive director under Marlin.

"Marlin was picked because Giuliani had endorsed Cuomo for reelection over Pataki and so Pataki returned the favor by appointing the guy who'd run against Giuliani as the Conservative candidate to run the Port Authority," said Thomas Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association.

Why has New York, which lost power in that arrangement, allowed it to continue?

“To the best of my knowledge, because nobody opposed it and New Jersey insisted upon it," said Boyle.

The result, according to Boyle, is “you will have these continuing problems ... because you have a house divided. You have a company being operated by two entities, instead of one. [And] a business that large can’t have two structures operating it. It just doesn’t work."

You also have a Port Authority executive director who doesn't feel empowered to fire his subordinate.

Back in December, Port Authority executive director and Cuomo appointee Pat Foye shocked observers when he admitted, under oath, that he would have fired David Wildstein, Baroni's subordinate and another engineer of the George Washington Bridge debacle, "But Mr. Wildstein is a member of the authority's New Jersey contingent, and employed in Mr. Baroni's office," according to the Wall Street Journal's paraphrasing of the testimony.

The Port Authority didn't always work like that.

Back in the day, according to Wright, the governors appointed the commissioners and the commissioners appointed the executive director and other executive staff. 

He would recommend going back to that system.

"The founding concept of this was to create these institutions that had financial accountability and political independence," he said. "What’s happened is instead is the finances have become opaque and the politics are now driving things."