Christie to DRPA: come up with reforms - and fast

September 2, 2010 2:15:27 PM PDT
Gov. Chris Christie made a surprise visit to the Delaware River Port Authority on Thursday to make his case for faster reforms for the embattled bistate agency.

The New Jersey governor praised the agency for making quick changes last month after a scandal erupted over employee perks, but he said other measures need to be taken quickly - such as implementing a tougher conflict-of-interest policy for the politically connected board.

"Those things that were not done need to be done and they need to be done right away," Christie said. "I am not going to permit this agency to continue to operate the way it's historically operated."

The DRPA, which operates four bridges, a train line and a ferry service, all connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the Philadelphia area, came under scrutiny two months ago when it was revealed that employees were getting free bridge tolls and train fares.

Since then, there's been renewed attention to the agency, which has been criticized for years as a haven for patronage jobs and for the way it has spent on economic development projects - including stadiums and museums - that don't have anything to do with transportation.

Christie has been on a campaign to reform independent agencies and commissions across the state.

Last month, the agency's commissioners met twice and implemented a series of reforms, including halting all economic development spending, requiring bids for nearly all contracts, ending a particular type of closed-door meetings where much of the board's business has been conducted, eliminating some high-ranking jobs and promising to review salaries for its top officials.

Christie, who had veto power over board actions, nixed some of them Thursday. For instance, he called for a total ban on DRPA commissioners and employees going to work for firms that do business with the agency for two years after they leave the DRPA. The commissioners imposed a softer prohibition.

He also objected to hiring a law firm to investigate its insurance contracts, saying the investigation should be done instead by New Jersey's comptroller.

"I don't have any confidence in the fact that a law firm hired by the DRPA to do an investigation of the DRPA, being paid by the DRPA, will necessarily report the truth," he said.

He also called for conflict-of-interest rules for the board's commissioners. The agency imposed restrictions on employees but struggled with how to regulate the political activities of the commissioners themselves, largely because many of them hold other elected offices.

Christie said it's important to have a policy to help restore public confidence in the agency. But he has limited power to force changes at the DRPA.

All eight New Jersey commissioners have terms that last until at least 2014 - meaning Christie may not have any appointments of his own on the board in his current term.

Christie can veto actions taken by the board. He said he may do that or use another method to make the board follow his desires. But he said he wouldn't reveal his "game plan."

He didn't give a specific timeline, but suggested that he doesn't want the board to wait until its next scheduled meeting on Sept. 15.

DRPA CEO John Matheussen, a former state senator and a Republican like Christie, stood behind the governor as he spoke Thursday.

He said it was good to end the agency's controversial economic development role, saying now the agency can focus on its main duties of getting people safely across the Delaware River.

Matheussen also announced Thursday that the agency is instituting a hiring freeze and aiming to propose a 2011 budget that's 2 percent smaller than the current spending plan, which is worth around $130 million.


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