Do port authority’s woes need another airing, or is it time to move on?
Now that state auditors have outlined the ethics missteps and questionable spending practices of the Connecticut Port Authority, lawmakers are asking a new question about the embattled agency.
Is another legislative hearing — delving deeper into the quasi-public entity’s problems — necessary to bolster public confidence?
Or — as Gov. Ned Lamont’s office has implied — would another hearing only highlight problems that have been mostly fixed?
The consensus among lawmakers seems tilted in favor of a hearing.
“I don’t think we’re all done with this,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, one of three southeastern Connecticut lawmakers who’ve called for a new hearing since the last audit was released on Oct. 31. “I think we still need to have people come in and explain ‘this is why we had these problems in the first place.’”
State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, agrees, and said the legislature has a responsibility to help set parameters for the Port Authority.
“What can we learn from this audit to make sure we don’t have to deal with these problems again?” said Conley. “There are definitely concerns about what has happened and we want the General Assembly to help the port authority to move forward.”
Conley, who penned a joint letter with Osten to the Transportation Committee asking for a new hearing, added that public confidence in the quasi-public is mixed.
“Some people have a lot of confidence,” Conley said. “With others there is some trepidation.”
The Transportation Committee held a public hearing in August, but that was before many details about port authority spending had been released.
The authority, which was created by the 2014 legislature and then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, has been under fire since early summer.
But a new report last week from state Auditors John Geragosian and Robert Kane added fuel to the fire, concluding the authority spent thousands of dollars on expensive meals and liquor, incurred excessive legal fees and generally acted without clear policies governing purchases, personnel matters and ethics.
The Lamont administration largely had reached the same conclusion this summer about the authority it had inherited, and took several steps.
Lamont called for the resignation of then-authority Chairwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder after it became publicly known the authority had paid $3,250 to Reemsnyder’s daughter for for six professional photographs hung in the CPA’s Old Saybrook office.
The governor also named David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, to replace Reemsnyder as acting chairman.
And Lamont directed staff from the state Office of Policy and Management and with Connecticut Innovations — the state’s quasi-public economic development arm — to assist with policy development at the port authority.
Kooris said last week that work is well underway and should be completed early in 2020.
“What was happening at the port authority under the prior management was inexcusable and below what we should expect from an entity such as this,” Lamont said last week. “My office has worked and will continue to work to ensure the Port Authority is accountable and that measures are in place to make that happen.”
Lamont said it’s crucial that the authority’s work promoting development of Connecticut’s Long Island Sound ports continues without further problems. The governor has been particularly optimistic about the potential for wind generation proposals for the Sound.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection sought proposals this summer for offshore wind facilities. Proposals were submitted by Vineyard Wind; Ørsted North America and Eversource; and by Shell New Energies and EDPR Renewables North America.
Republican legislators are also seeking a public hearing.
“I think public confidence is pretty low right now,” said Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook. “A lot of people prior to this didn’t know the port authority even existed or what they did. It’s almost as if all they know about the port authority is framed in a negative light.”
Carney said the authority’s image problem can only be fixed with another public hearing, complete with testimony from the state auditors.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, and Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, also called last week for a second hearing.
“This audit is screaming for a public hearing,” Fasano said. “The Connecticut Port Authority needs to earn back the public’s trust.”
One of the co-chairs of the Transportation Committee, Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, said he favors holding a second public hearing — preferably before the year’s end and definitely before the regular 2020 General Assembly session starts in February.
“The governor’s office and David Kooris did a great job responding to the port authority issues,” Lemar said.
But now that Geragosian and Kane have provided legislators with much more detail about authority transactions, “I do think it’s important for us to publicly hear the results of that audit and to have the auditors available to committee members.”
Lemar added a hearing might be the best way “to make sure this authority is operating to its fullest potential” going forward.
The Transportation Committee’s other co-chair, Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said once the panel has completed its review of the audit, “we will then chart our next course of action and make that public at the appropriate time. As we have stated previously, the Transportation Committee remains committed to being fair and deliberate in all of our actions.”
Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern CT, did not weigh in on the prospects of another hearing.
But Sheridan, who also leads another state quasi-public, the Connecticut Airport Authority, said he appreciates legislators’ concerns about public confidence.
“One of the great characteristics of our free-market economy is confidence. If you don’t have confidence in an organization, then it has a ripple effect that is not good. It will hurt, if not immediately then eventually.”
But Sheridan also praised Lamont and Kooris for their efforts to overhaul the agency, saying they’ve done “a good job of getting their arms around this issue.”
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