The Port Authority prepares for an era of fewer secrets

The Port Authority prepares for an era of fewer secrets
October 18, 2006 Star-Ledger
After conducting most of its business behind closed doors for 85 years, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is promising a new era of open meetings and greater public disclosure.

Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia said yesterday the multibillion-dollar transportation agency will welcome far greater scrutiny of its actions: Votes will be taken openly, time will be set aside for comment from the public, and closed sessions will be limited.

The changes were detailed in a letter sent Monday to the agency's 7,000 employees. Coscia said they will go into effect as soon as tomorrow, when the 12-member board of commissioners holds its monthly meeting.

"The Port Authority is the largest public authority in the world. As such, we must hold ourselves to standards of accountability and transparency that are unmatched as well," Coscia pledged in the letter.

"Because, simply put, without public confidence in our agency, we cannot accomplish our goals," added Coscia.

Since it was formed by a special act of Congress in 1921, the bistate agency has operated unlike virtually any other public authority, largely free of the kind of public disclosure required of most state and federal agencies.

The change follow an Oct. 8 story in the Sunday Star-Ledger detailing the Port Authority's secret sessions and actions over the years: billion-dollar rail contracts, lucrative consulting deals for its own retired officials, big pay hikes and other costly expenses approved with little or no notice to the public.

Though the new policies promise change, Coscia said an undetermined amount of business would remain confidential if commissioners decide their deliberations involve "significant security or financial issues."

There are no guarantees the reforms will last if Coscia leaves the agency. The chairman serves a one-year term that is renewable by board vote. Coscia is now in his fourth year as head of the authority. Board members serve three-year terms.

Coscia said the new openness is an acceleration of policies he has been working on for more than a year.

Key legislators in New York and New Jersey applauded Coscia's announcement of reforms but said they do not go far enough. They want legislative oversight of the authority, which is now primarily monitored by the governors of the two states.

"It's a first step," said New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who is proposing oversight legislation in his state.

For example, Brodsky wants the Port Authority to detail for the public exactly what commissioners are voting on at meetings, and to submit to independent budget scrutiny and tighter rules over how it buys and disposes of property.

"It's a recognition that the world is changing," Brodsky said of Coscia's actions. "But this is a policy decision for lawmakers, not a gift from a bureaucracy."


Identical legislation is necessary in both states for the Port Authority to be bound by oversight initiatives. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said she is prepared to work with Brodsky to develop identical bills.

"The Port Authority is certainly one of those agencies that affects all our lives," said Weinberg. "I think it's best to have these (reforms) embedded permanently into law."

Coscia said he understands such sentiments.

"It's appropriate for Assemblyman Brodsky and others in the public sphere to question the Port Authority and other public entities to make sure they live up to the highest standards," Coscia said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Brendan Gilfillan, a spokesman for Gov. Jon Corzine, praised Coscia's actions.

"The governor has required increased transparency and accountability at independent state authorities," said Gilfillan. "He is pleased that Chairman Coscia is taking steps to do the same at the Port Authority."

Coscia said he believes the agency can adequately police itself but accepts the possibility of legislative oversight.

"Certainly, we should be receptive to it," said Coscia.

Currently, the Port Authority board typically holds open meetings lasting less than 15 minutes. It votes on a laundry list of items decided in earlier closed sessions, and it rarely engages in open debate on policies, actions or spending.

Coscia also told employees that agency officials "are conducting a top-to-bottom review of the agency's open meetings policy," with revisions expected by year's end. The policy was last updated in 1992.

While the Port Authority receives no tax dollars, it raises billions of dollars annually primarily through airport leases and landing fees, as well as bridge and tunnel tolls. It has a $5billion operating budget, with nearly $2billion more earmarked for long-term capital project spending.

Coscia said increasing public trust will be critical as the agency seeks to complete massive projects, including the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, building a second $7.2billion rail tunnel between New Jersey and Midtown Manhattan and developing a fourth major regional airport.

"There's nothing that's more important than maintaining the public's confidence in the agency and, more importantly, in the mission the agency has," Coscia said.

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