Port Authority Bill Needs Enforcement Mechanism

NJ bill S2181 passed out of the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee on September 18th with a unanimous vote.  The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government was there and commented on the bill.  Both NJFOG and the ACLU pointed out that while the bill contains many good provisions, it contains no enforcement mechanism.  Unlike NJ bill S2183, which brings PANYNJ under OPRA (Open Public Records Act), S2181 does not mention the OPMA (Open Public Meetings Act), which would provide for enforcement.  The committee members and the bill’s sponsors acknowledged the need for an enforcement provision, but it is more likely to be handled as a subsequent bill rather than as a change to the current bill.  A reason is that both New York and New Jersey need to pass similar bills for either to take effect, and making changes to the bill at this stage may affect passage.  A comment was made at the committee meeting that New York has only until the end of this year to pass their law.

The following was reported by The Record on the same day as the Senate committee meeting:  “The Port Authority agreed at its monthly board meeting to change its bylaws, now requiring the agency to apply New Jersey’s OPRA law or New York’s Freedom of Information Law to record requests, whichever law is more favorable to disclosure.”  It appears they see the writing on the wall.  However, bylaws can easily be changed. That’s why we need legislation!

Read more about the board’s action here:

Below is an ACLU press release on this topic.  You can also link to it here:  https://www.aclu.org/keep-america-safe-and-free-protecting-civil-liberties-digital-age/aclu-nj-supports-bill-increase​

ACLU-NJ Supports Bill to Increase Port Authority Transparency as Key First Step, but More Needed to Prevent Future Abuses.

S2181 Would Apply Aspects of Open Public Meetings Act to Port Authority, But Needs Enforcement Mechanism

September 18, 2014

CONTACT 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ submitted testimony supporting legislation to bring transparency to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), which the Senate State Government Committee will be considering today. The ACLU-NJ welcomed the measure as a promising first step toward openness at the Port Authority, giving praise to the sponsors in the Senate of S2181, Senator Robert Gordon and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, and the sponsor of A3417, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle.

The ACLU-NJ cautioned, however, that the legislation, S2181, will fall short of its aims without follow-up legislation creating enforcement mechanisms that hold the PANYNJ accountable for operating transparently.

“Any measure of openness at the Port Authority is a step in the right direction, and this bill in particular is necessary for future reforms,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “We commend the bill’s sponsors for pushing New Jersey to pass a bill parallel to New York’s, the only route to instituting transparency. But companion legislation creating enforcement mechanisms, which are absent from this bill, is needed. Otherwise the Port Authority will have little incentive from carrying on as it has in the past: in the dark. This legislation is an important start, but it’s only part of what the people of New Jersey and New York need for the Port Authority to operate with accountability.”

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is not subject to the Open Public Records Act or Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), New Jersey’s two main government transparency laws. The legislation being considered before the Senate State Government Committee, S2181, applies the general principles of OPMA to the PANYNJ. However, while OPMA contains provisions that allow for legal action if a public body violates the terms of the law, S2181 does not contain similar enforcement provisions.

Without state legislation, multistate agencies such as the PANYNJ determine their own levels of openness. For state governments to pass such regulations of multistate agencies, each state must enact parallel legislation that calls for the same kinds of joint oversight. New York’s version of S2181 has already passed both houses of the legislature.

The longstanding issue of transparency at the PANYNJ came to a fore in late 2013, when the Bridgegate scandal involving closure of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge first broke. However, advocates have been trying to pass legislation requiring transparency from the PANYNJ for years. In July 2012, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed legislation that would have given the public greater access to financial and procedural dealings at the Port Authority.

Another bill in the legislature, S2183, would apply the general principles of the Open Public Records Act to the PANYNJ in a similar manner to S2181’s application of the Open Public Meetings Act.