I’m glad I was sitting down when I read the latest press release from the Delaware River Port Authority yesterday.
Because if I weren’t, my knees surely would’ve buckled and I would have fallen over here in the newsroom; sending my colleagues scurrying for the nearest medic when we needed to put a broadcast together on deadline.
I don’t want to run the risk of dipping into hyperbole here — something friends and family members say I’m prone to on occasion — but in more than 25 years of plying this trade I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a statement as mind-boggling and completely out of touch as this one from any government agency. Ever.
By way of quick background (so you can join me in my astonishment without too much nail-biting anticipation here), the by now beloved-by- the-public-at large-for-its-own-over-the-top-sense-of-entitlement DRPA’s Board of Commissioners on Wednesday rolled back one of the key reforms it adopted just a month ago to restrain some of the largesse it ladles out to itself.
Acting under intense public and political pressure that had been building ever since NJN News’ own Zachary Fink first broke the story of government agency perks gone wild back in June, the DRPA — a bi-state agency serving New Jersey and Pennsylvania by operating four bridges and a high-speed rail service between South Jersey and Philadelphia — adopted a host of reforms on August 18. Among them, one that served as a rallying cry by pro-reformers: toll-free EZ Pass across the DRPA’s four toll bridges as well as free PATCO train trips for DRPA workers, retirees and, yes, commissioners.
On Wednesday, the commissioners voted 14-2 to reinstate those freebies… I put the action this way in our NJN Newsminute that evening: “Toll payers may once again carry the folks working for them at the DRPA …” That was my sense of the move, anyway. Struggling toll payers picking up the tab for the (likely struggling-as-well) toll takers.
But first the DRPA’s U-turn would have to pass through something a lot stronger than a toll gate; a gubernatorial veto.
Yes, it would have to get by a penny-pinching Governor Christie who spent the gubernatorial campaign and now his first seven months in office showing off his man-of-the-people street cred. A turn of events about as likely as Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross coming back to paint the DRPA bridges named for them.
No surprise there. The governor’s press office put out a statement Thursday evening saying Gov. Christie had “issued a scathing rebuke” of actions taken by the DRPA. And also, as it happens, the anticipated veto.
The following day, the DRPA issued a press release entitled “DRPA New Jersey Commissioners Respond to Governor Christie’s Veto.”
By way of an explanation, the press release states, “During the DRPA Board Meeting on September 15, 2010, there was a passionate and engaged discussion about allowing DRPA employees to commute to and from work without paying tolls. Like our colleagues, we were moved by the statements of DRPA staff members about the impact of this change on DRPA employees.” (In fairness, I believe labor contracts may be involved here for workers and retirees — though certainly not commissioners and executives. And if so, I’m not one to support meddling by fiat with agreed upon contracts; but that should’ve been considered back in August and somehow referred to in the release, which it’s not).
Here’s the passage that would’ve buckled my knees had I been standing upright: “In retrospect we recognize that we did not sufficiently consider the comments of Governor Christie and Vice Chairman Nash. In particular we did not sufficiently consider the interests of our toll payers and PATCO riders.”
It continues: “Our customers, whether from New Jersey or Pennsylvania, depend on DRPA and PATCO to deliver quality transportation services at a fair price without incurring the commuting costs for DRPA employees. If we had it to do again we would not vote to reinstate.” (All italics are mine).
That’s essentially it. And here’s the real head-scratcher. What were they thinking in the first place? (Who knows what the Pennsylvania commissioners are still thinking? And what’s Pennsylvania’s Demcoratic governor, Ed Rendell, got to say on this. He’s been strangely silent.)
As a side note, Governor Chrisite, a Republican, likes to point out that he didn’t appoint these commissioners. He inherited them from the Democratic governor he defeated at the polls in November, Jon Corzine. But he must’ve used his muscle somehow for this near-instant retraction.
But there lies a cautionary signal in this same release that New Jersey’s commissioners and officials still have a ways to go before restoring hearing that’s apparently gone tone deaf.
The release recognizes, in retrospect of course, that the commissioners did not sufficiently consider the comments of Governor Christie and Board Vice Chairman Jeff Nash, a Camden County Democratic powerbroker.
Toll payers play second fiddle in the release to the governor and the vice chairman. The officials were mentioned first, as if it were not for them, the toll payers wouldn’t have been heard at all. Like Garden State serfs to their lords of the manor.
The toll payers should be elevated to first chair, as they say in orchestra speak, and they should be heard first when they call the tune. Maybe then the commissioners and officials would receive an encore instead of being chased from the stage by rotten tomatoes hurled at them from below.