The Delaware River Port Authority held a five-hour meeting Wednesday to essentially get its basic governance standards up to a bare minimum. It is good to see the agency begin to emerge from the dark ages of third-world bureaucracy, but there is much more to be done.
Several board members deserve credit for the reforms, but it is clear that the DRPA’s current leadership is in no position to dramatically change the agency’s political culture. That is why the DRPA needs new leadership, beginning with the removal of chief executive John Matheussen, board chairman John Estey, and vice chairman Jeffrey Nash.
Each man is there because of political connections. They have presided over an agency that is bloated with debt, riddled with patronage, and driven by politics.
Estey said that he will step down at the end of the year. But his services are no longer needed. He should go now. The DRPA can find a way to survive the next few months without his Ballard Spahr legal connections and political ties to Gov. Rendell. Even in the midst of adopting several good but very basic governance measures, Estey questioned other needed changes. When a proposal was brought up to prohibit political contributions from firms that do business with the DRPA, Estey said: “If we shut them out, I don’t know who we’d do business with.”
That cuts to the crux of the DRPA’s problem — the agency typically does business with political cronies. The DRPA’s broader cultural mind-set is to hire friends and family — not to find the best and most-qualified employees or contracted firms at the best price. It is no small coincidence that Estey’s law firm — which is also where Rendell, before he was governor, received big pay for little work — has made millions from the DRPA in recent years. Estey, Nash, and Matheussen should not oversee any more spending, borrowing, or hiring at the DRPA. They and their politically connected predecessors helped drive the agency deep into debt and padded the payroll with six-figure hires in dubious jobs.
The board voted to eliminate a few token positions on Wednesday. But there needs to be a full analysis of all spending, jobs, and contracts. Employees and contractors who are not needed, or not qualified, should be terminated, and exorbitant salaries reduced. Forty percent of the DRPA’s budget goes to fund $1.4 billion in debt, including $500 million borrowed and given away to a variety of economic-development projects that have little to do with operating the four bridges or PATCO transit line. Perhaps the recent and pending hikes in bridge tolls could have been avoided or reduced if so much of the budget wasn’t needed to pay off debt.
The reform measures adopted Wednesday are a nice first step. But more change is needed — in the leadership and governance — before anyone can have much confidence in the DRPA.