Christie takes no action to replace DRPA board

Posted: August 05, 2014

After using his veto pen to attack employee perks and demanding reform at the Delaware River Port Authority during his first term, Gov. Christie for the first time has the power to reshape the board that oversees the bistate agency.

But the Republican governor has made no move to name his own representatives to the board of the agency - which has been under federal investigation for politically connected economic-development spending - since the terms of the eight New Jersey commissioners ended July 1. The commissioners were nominated or renominated to fill five-year terms by former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine.

The agency, which operates four bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line between South Jersey and Philadelphia, also has eight Pennsylvania commissioners. There is no set limit on how long the New Jersey commissioners may serve.

Commissioners reached by The Inquirer said Christie's office had not contacted them about their status on the board.

Christie said Friday that he had "just started" to have conversations about the matter with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). Since the members can continue to serve as holdovers, "I don't feel a sense of urgency to make those judgments," the governor said. "There are other nominations that are more urgent than that."

Christie demanded changes at the DRPA in 2010 after uproar over an employee's daughter getting free E-ZPass trips into Pennsylvania. The backlash fed criticism of other employee perks, such as car allowances, and business practices such as no-bid contracts.

The authority adopted a number of measures pushed by Christie. But the governor, saying the agency's changes didn't go far enough, held a public event in Camden in September 2010 to veto several actions and proclaim that he was "not going to permit this agency to operate the way it has historically operated."

The DRPA has continued to face scrutiny: In 2012, then-state Comptroller Matthew Boxer issued a report that identified "deficiencies in financial practices" - some of which the report said had been remedied by the agency - and said that "in nearly every area we looked at, we found people who treated the DRPA like a personal ATM."

The agency has also been the subject of a federal investigation for spending millions of dollars on economic-development projects unrelated to transportation - a practice officials say has ended, though some spending contractually required by previous agreements continues.

In January, Christie, who said in 2010 that he would not permit the DRPA board to renew then-CEO John Mattheussen's contract if adequate changes weren't made, nominated Mattheussen to become a state court judge. The Senate confirmed the nomination.

The Senate would have to approve any nominations by Christie to the DRPA. Sweeney said Thursday that the governor had not spoken to him about any plans for the board.

"I'll cross that bridge when he gets there," Sweeney said. "But he has not mentioned to me one time about it. Maybe because he knows that we have to agree to it, too."

Sweeney's brother, Richard Sweeney, an ironworkers union official, is one of the New Jersey commissioners. The board's New Jersey membership includes other union officials and South Jersey elected officials.

Sweeney and George Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic leader, have a "really strong and vested interest in those appointments," given the DRPA's importance to South Jersey, said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. She noted Boxer's report describing a financial agreement involving Norcross' insurance company, which the report said received a referral fee for securing DRPA business for another firm. Norcross, in the report, said the payments were for marketing efforts for the firm unrelated to the DRPA.

"The governor probably isn't looking to pick a fight on this particular issue," Harrison said Friday.

Dan Fee, a spokesman for Norcross, termed Harrison's assessment "silly."

Harrison said Christie may also want to avoid added scrutiny of his nominations in the aftermath of the scandal over apparently politically motivated traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge - a controversy that prompted intense scrutiny of Christie's appointees at the bridge's operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and his administration's interaction with the bistate agency.

"The vetting process for anyone to take one of those seats would be much different now than it would have been a year ago," Harrison said. "Of course he wants his own people on the DRPA or any other authority.

"But he also needs to be particularly cautious about the kind of relationship he has with those individuals," she said.

Board commissioners, who are unpaid, have control over decisions such as toll increases and the agency's spending, including contracts. The agency's operating budget is $278 million.

Jeffrey Nash, the board's vice chairman and a Camden County freeholder, said that while he deals with the governor's office "almost every day on issues with the DRPA," his status on the board had "not been discussed. Not with me, anyway."

Nash, who has been a commissioner since 2002, said he had worked "very well" with the governor's office.

"This administration, and the Senate president, have done an extraordinary job in changing the culture of the DRPA . . . and making sure things are done to benefit customers," Nash said.

Given the demands of his freeholder duties, however, "I have to weigh personally whether this is something I should consider doing," Nash said. He is expected to discuss his place on the board with Christie and Sweeney.

Rick Taylor, a commissioner and a Pennsauken committeeman, said he had "no idea" whether he would be asked to stay on the board.

"We all know the length of the terms," Taylor said. Commissioners have been focused on "trying to straighten things up and be responsible to the toll-payers."

His term ending has "probably been the last thing on my mind," he said.

Denise Mason, a bank vice president from Camden, said she was "not sure" whether Christie would reapppoint her to the board. "Once the process takes place, you'll know it," she said.

Charles Fentress, a retired DRPA police officer, said he had "no knowledge" of whether he would be renominated. Asked whether he wanted to stay on the board, he said, "It's questionable."

On the DRPA Board

Below is a listing of the eight New Jersey DRPA commissioners. All terms ended July 1, 2014. Information on appointment dates provided by the DRPA.

Jeffrey L. Nash

Board vice chair and Camden County freeholder.

Appointed: 3/21/02

Albert F. Frattali

Washington Township councilman, ironworkers union official.

Appointed: 1/7/02

E. Frank DiAntonio

Retired president of Laborers Local 172. Appointed: 5/16/02

Tamarisk L. Jones

Gloucester County health director. Appointed: 9/16/09

Richard Sweeney

President and business manager of an ironworkers local, brother of Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

Appointed: 7/7/09

Charles Fentress

Retired DRPA police officer.

Appointed: 6/30/05

Rick Taylor

Pennsauken committeeman. Appointed: 1/7/08

Denise Y. Mason

Bank vice president at HSBC.

Appointed: 1/20/10

Inquirer staff writer Paul Nussbaum contributed to this article.

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

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