John Baer: DRPA reform, or just smoke & mirrors?

DRPA could see changes with Rendell (left) out and Christie new.
DRPA could see changes with Rendell (left) out and Christie new.
Posted: August 04, 2010

THE ACRID AIR over the Delaware River Port Authority is either passing smoke from an internal dust-up or the start of a fire that could burn the place down.

Depends who you believe.

DRPA Board Chairman John Estey said Monday that recent airings of abuse of pay, patronage, perks and E-ZPass amount to "a lot of smoke but not a lot of fire."

DRPA board member John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty yesterday said that, before this is over, "there won't be any smoke; that whole building will be on fire."

And so we're off.

Maybe you believe the 200-plus-page "Independent Management Audit" that DRPA just released, for which it contracted a Greensboro, N.C., firm in March 2008 for a measly $499,350.

The report says that the authority is "doing an acceptable job." It says: "It is our impression that the current administration is attempting to operate in a business-like, apolitical fashion that is reflective of good government."

Your impression? What are you, artists or auditors?

DRPA is a longtime, bistate patronage bin that controls PATCO and bridges to Jersey and is mired in a mess that includes calls for investigations and reforms.

Its $180,000-a-year (plus a $9,000 car allowance) public-safety director, Michael Joyce, is gone, caught giving a free E-ZPass to his daughter.

Its managers make six-figures plus huge car allowances plus free E-ZPass, while bridge tolls increase: $2 in 2000; $4 today; $5 next year.

There are questions about its transparency, contracts and legal work. And then there's the obvious: The authority, run by appointees of Jersey and Pennsylvania governors, is a political playpen benefiting connected individuals and firms while thumbing its nose at the paying public.

"It's another one of these agencies that's easier to abuse than some of the more conventional parts of government," says the Committee of Seventy's Zack Stalberg. He adds that the "theory" of authorities is to do public business a little more quickly, not to become politicians' private reserve for jobs, perks and contracts.

This is an agency with a roughly $300 million budget and 900 employees that operates mostly in secret and has spent close to $400 million since 1999 on museums, theaters and sports stadiums in Chester, Camden and Philly.

Think there was any favoritism involved? Do you like paying tolls for that?

What I love is how those who trained and fed this dog are rushing to teach it discipline.

Gov. Rendell, a past DRPA chairman who admits that he shares "a good portion" of the blame, now wants more transparency.

State Auditor General Jack Wagner, a board member since 2006, suddenly calls for good-government initiatives.

And Chairman Estey, who as Rendell's chief of staff represented the Guv on the board until Estey became chairman in May 2009, says that change is under way.

Think Ed's former law firm, Ballard Spahr, where Estey's a partner, gets DRPA bond/legal work?

Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who comes into this clean and, in my view, ought to carry the ball, wants an end to car allowances and free rides, and wants new audits and forced compliance with open-record and sunshine acts.

Dougherty, meanwhile, says he has questions about legal fees, professional contracts and personnel: "It'll take six months to get all the answers. . . . I'm gonna prove this is systemic abuse of taxpayer money and tolls."

For those who question the longtime labor leader's motives (and, yes, I heard, he couldn't get somebody hired and, yes, everybody always questions his motives), Doc, a board member since 2004, says he asked questions for years and was ignored.

He says that it's part of a larger issue, that it's about being "sick and tired" of managers' using labor as a fall guy to balance budgets in tough times while too many managers in too many places line their pockets and those of their friends.

I don't know where all this ends up, but I do know that with a new governor in Jersey and new governor coming to Pennsylvania, it's a good time to change the DRPA.

I also know what smoke smells like, and that it often means there's fire.

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