Reforming the Port Authority, Part I: Transparency

The next six to twelve months will tell us whether the Port Authority is taking transparency seriously. Many encouraging promises have been made, now they need to be kept. The Port has some work to do to increase fiscal transparency.

John Kaehny, Reinvent Albany

If there’s one good thing that came out of Bridgegate, it was the fact that the public spotlight illuminated the inner workings of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), and revealed the need for a little more “sunshine” to enable the public to keep watch.

Mobilizing the Region asked John Kaehny, Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, what was on his “transparency wish list” for the agency, and we got quite a hefty to-do list in response. One of Kaehny’s biggest wishes is for an improvement to the accessibility of public documents, including Freedom of Information Law requests. He strongly asserted that all documents must be made available online in a downloadable, machine-readable format — including proposed budgets, committee briefing packets, contracts and property transactions. Making these documents easily available would not only increase transparency, but would potentially reduce the number of incoming FOIL requests by making frequently FOIL’ed information easily available to interested parties.

Another item on Kaehny’s transparency wish list was for PANYNJ to convene an annual meeting with public stakeholders to discuss improving its fiscal transparency as a means of winning and retaining the public’s confidence and support. Kaehny took particular issue with the current layout and content of the operating budget and Capital Plans, saying that they are difficult to follow. He stated that any amendments or changes to adopted plans fail to clearly explain how the changes impact the overall Capital Plan and agency debt, credit and finances.

The Citizens Budget Commission published their own wish list this past July with a goal of “greater transparency, long-term financial viability, and public accountability for performance.” They too called for more a open, detailed and regulated budget approval process with an emphasis on providing opportunities for public review and scheduled revisions and updates throughout the fiscal year. The Commission specifically  sought a long-term approach to the budgeting process, with approvals, revisions and updates based on ongoing commitments, assessments of assets and quarterly reports.

New Jersey’s Star-Ledger Editorial Board also published a five-point wish list earlier this year, which called for “more sunshine, more independence from political meddling, and strict limits to keep it focused on the dire transportation needs of the region, which remain grossly unmet.” Among their five wishes was another call for holding the the bi-state agency to each state’s individual open records laws, but they also included several big picture recommendations cherry-picked from the ongoing political discussions about the agency’s needs — nearly all of which have been included in Senator Wisniewski’s sweeping PANYNJ reform legislation. The editorial agrees with Senator Schumer’s assertion that the agency has strayed from its original mission in recent years by funding “airports outside its jurisdiction, single- state projects [and] risky real estate ventures.” The editorial also echoes the George Washington Bridge investigative panel’s recommendation to alleviate PANYNJ’s dual-state tension by giving the power to elect the agency’s executive director to the board of commissioners (rather than the governor of New York), and the power to elect the deputy director to the executive director (rather than the governor of New Jersey).

Each of these are solid recommendations that, if implemented, would go a long way towards putting PANYNJ in better standing with the public. Unfortunately, widespread reform doesn’t happen overnight. Again, the best first step: New York and New Jersey need to advance the current transparency bills into law. Once the bare minimum is covered, greater change must be pursued.

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