By John Celock
New Jersey legislators used Tuesday’s hearing of an investigative committee on the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge last year to focus on the operations of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Committee Democrats questioned Port Authority Commissioner Pat Schuber on the role of the bi-state Port Authority board and the overall governance of the agency. Schuber, a Republican and former Bergen County executive, used his opening statement to stress that he did not know about the lane closures in advance and does “not condone” the closures for alleged political reasons.
Under questioning from Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), Schuber said that when Weinberg contacted him during the lane closures in September he sought answers on why Fort Lee officials were not notified in advance. He said that notification was a concern of his.
“My concern at the time, at that time before I saw any of the rest of the stuff that came out much, much later, that was with regard to anything we do is notification to the municipalities,” Schuber said.
Democrats have alleged that the lanes were closed due to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich (D) not endorsing Gov. Chris Christie (R) for reelection last year. An investigation from Christie’s office has placed the blame with former Port Authority official David Wildstein and former gubernatorial deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, who are accused of acting alone.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) lectured Schuber over a series of emails he exchanged with former Port Authority Chairman David Samson following the lane closures. During the email exchanges, Samson had expressed opposition to Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, a New York appointee, in reopening the lanes. During the emails, Weinberg was called “a jerk” and accused of holding a grudge against Schuber for defeating her for county executive in 1998.
“You receive a letter from the majority leader and yet it was dismissed,” Gill said.
Gill told Schuber that she had issues with Weinberg being accused of holding a 15-year-old grudge against Schuber. She also questioned why Schuber asked Wildstein and one of his aides to hold off on responding to Weinberg’s original letter. Schuber had previously said he had talked to Weinberg on the phone. Schuber also said that he did not know the background of Wildstein’s aide, named Jared. Gill said that Jared had worked for Christie’s 2009 campaign and in the governor’s office and for the state Republican Party before joining the Port Authority.
Gill also noted opposition to Christie’s claim that Kelly orchestrated the lane closures due to being upset after breaking up with her boyfriend, Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien. Stepien had previously been Kelly’s boss.
“If the lane closures were done by an unstable woman and David Wildstein then the public would not need more answers,” Gill said. “Once the interview memos were released we knew there was more to the story.”
Much of the questioning focused on the daily operations of the Port Authority and the work Schuber is doing as chairman of the board’s governance committee. Schuber said that he viewed his role as working on behalf of the whole Port district but was constantly reminded that he should look out for New Jersey.
“We become commissioners to represent he entire port and its many facilities in the region that is the port district. It is supposed to promote economic development,” Schuber said. “With regard to that, there has always been a dichotomy with New Jersey commissioners and New York commissioners a built in tension to make sure that each state gets its fair share of dollars. It is not in the bylaws but it is something that I am always asked. We are supposed to represent the entire port district but that is a tug there. To represent the entire port district but make sure the economic interests of New Jersey are protected.”
Schuber noted that the current set up of the Port Authority has the executive director and the deputy executive director operating in a “co-head” role in the Port Authority. The executive director is traditionally named by New York’s governor and the deputy executive director by New Jersey’s governor. Schuber also noted tensions between staffers from the New Jersey and New York sides in terms of running the authority.
Schuber told the committee that he wants to move away from political appointments for the executive director and deputy executive director posts. He said he would want a nationwide search for both posts and to seek out candidates for both posts with backgrounds in management and infrastructure.
Schuber agreed with Sen. Kevin O’Toole’s (R-Cedar Grove) suggestion that the executive director and deputy executive director seek confirmation from the state Senates in both New York and New Jersey before taking office. He also said that it could work to have commissioners be confirmed by the Senates in both states before joining the board. Currently they are confirmed by the Senate of the state they live in. Six commissioners from each state serve.
In response to questioning, Schuber also defended the Port Authority’s real estate holdings, which includes the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. The agency has been accused of venturing in to real estate at the expense of its work on transportation issues.
Schuber said that much of the real estate owned now is adjacent to other Port Authority facilities and the agency reviews its holdings on a regular basis. He said that he could not explain the practices that lead to the construction of the World Trade Center in the 1960s. The World Trade Center was constructed by the Port Authority as part of then New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s (R) series of construction projects around the state.
“We do not acquire property willy nilly,” Schuber said of the Port Authority’s current real estate policies.