On Responsibility and Governance

Senator Chuck Schumer released a proposal on Monday to revamp the system governing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey:

First, the Port Authority should come back with a process for the nomination and confirmation of an Executive Director by the Board of Commissioners, not by the Governor of one state or the other. Second, the Port Authority should propose administrative changes vesting full managerial authority and responsibility of the entire Port Authority organization with the Executive Director. Third, the Port Authority should establish a permanent process to nominate individuals as Commissioners to the Port Authority who possess a comprehensive financial, engineering and planning background, and no conflicts of interest related to the Port Authority’s core mission. It should be clear that these commissioners have a fiduciary duty to the Port Authority.

While this is laudable in the sense of (to some extent), removing politics from the governance of the Port Authority, at the same time it removes any sense of accountability and dilutes what remains to the point where it’s hard to say where the affected citizenry might turn.

This is an inherent problem in any multi-state compact, with WMATA being – as usual – a prime example of the dysfunctionality that can ensue. The Pennsylvania-New Jersey Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) has problems of its own. With WMATA, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, the governors of Virginia and Maryland, and the federal government all appoint members to the board, which in turn appoints a general manager.

This has the perverse effect of establishing zero-responsibility positions with full authority. If dissatisfied with the GM, one can’t petition a single elected official to remove and replace him, nor is the GM himself elected. One could try to approach, say, DC councilmember and WMATA board member Muriel Bowser, but even if she were inclined to do anything, she’s just one voice on the board. And if one went to the Mayor of DC, what can he do? He only appoints two members of the board.

It’s clear that WMATA and DRPA and the Port Authority are all in need of major reform, but it’s less clear to me how we establish some accountability within the leadership of these agencies. Political patronage is not the answer, but neither is shelter from consequences. Managing interstate compacts is an incredibly difficult – but necessary – proposition, and somehow they must also be held accountable.

(via Second Avenue Sagas


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