N.J. Transit’s Wall of Silence May Crumble Before Lawmakers

(Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Transit’s board and executive director decide how to spend more than $3 billion a year to keep commuter buses and trains moving. For the troubled agency’s 900,000 daily riders and the lawmakers who represent them, though, they are inscrutable.

On Friday, lawmakers will grill the agency’s newly appointed head, Steve Santoro, after he failed to appear at a hearing last month in the aftermath of a fatal train crash, leaving unanswered questions on budget shortfalls, safety audits and the delayed installation of accident-prevention technology.

The seven-member board skipped its monthly meetings in July and September, and three of its committees that consider key policies are held in secret. When it does meet, the trustees -- a mix of Republican Governor Chris Christie’s cabinet members and residents he chooses -- gather in Newark during commuters’ work hours and security guards accompany them through doors off limits to all but staff. They sit before a sparse audience forbidden to leave the area without escorts.

Any fireworks are provided by a core group of three advocates who have sought, for more than a decade, to find out details of agency operations, their queries often turned aside with vague promises of information later.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, there’s never any follow-up,” said Joseph Clift, 66, a retired Long Island Rail Road planning executive. “We have no standing in the process.”

Now, lawmakers newly armed with subpoena power want to know why agency officials didn’t raise red flags about safety and increased breakdowns as the agency, under Christie, transferred $2.49 billion from its capital budget to cover operating expenses.

“I’m mindful that the buck stops with the governor,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, a West Orange Democrat co-leading the lawmakers’ inquiry.

Generous Group

Christie, who pledged “a new era of accountability and transparency” for government in his 2010 inaugural address, has chosen several of his financial backers to help oversee the nation’s third-biggest mass-transportation operator.

Three appointees -- trucking executive James C. Finkle Jr., developer Bruce Meisel and health-care manager Flora Castillo -- have collectively given almost $70,000 to his campaigns and inaugurals, plus the Republican state committee, filings show. A fourth, Raymond Greaves, a bus-union official without voting power, supports Democrats. The trustees, who serve four-year terms and can be reappointed, declined to discuss their volunteer roles and expertise.

“My bio is on the site. That pretty much sums it up,” Finkle said in a brief telephone interview. The three others didn’t respond to requests for comment left by telephone, e-mail and Twitter message.

For more than 12 years, starting in 2003 and during the administration of Democrat Jon Corzine, board members acted in lockstep, voting unanimously on more than 800 resolutions, including four fare increases. By comparison, during meetings of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, “there’s no guarantee that everybody agrees,” said Mitchell Pally, a board member since 2005.

Discussion of public issues often happens in closed board committees. While New Jersey Transit allows attendance at its customer service and administration panels, those on capital planning, policy and privatization; audits; and safety and security meet in private.

Jennifer Nelson, a spokeswoman, said that closing committee proceedings is allowable because the state’s open meetings law has an exemption for an “advisory body.”

“Minutes for board committees are not posted on the website because there is no requirement to do so,” Nelson said in an e-mail. “However, the chairs of all committees report out of their respective discussions during every full board meeting.”

Such policy “is not transparent at all,” said Walter Luers, a Clinton-based attorney and vice president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government. The agency, he said, is taking advantage of the provision “to meet, deliberate and exclude the public.”

The New York board, in comparison, opens all its committee meetings and publishes their minutes.

New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat, asked Friday why some meetings are private. She told Santoro at the hearing that she wants copies of all committee minutes.

“It’s symptomatic of eight years of closed, secret, behind-the-doors stuff that’s been going on, and for New Jersey Transit to be doing it is despicable,” she said.

Sudden Stops

As the agency’s ridership has grown, troubles have mounted.

In fiscal 2015, a record 272.3 million riders -- 7 percent more than in 2011 -- took to New Jersey Transit, with most commuting to and from New York City.

The agency reported 240 major rail breakdowns in 2015, its worst record in at least six years and second only to that of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Among U.S. commuter railroads in the past five years, New Jersey Transit reported the most accidents and highest federal fines.

Such statistics have blindsided lawmakers, who hear annual testimony about finances from the executive director, a board-selected official who carries out its policies.

Though Rick Hammer, the board’s chairman and state’s transportation commissioner, said at an Oct. 21 hearing that the agency “has the resources it needs,” lawmakers weren’t convinced. Santoro, appointed executive director in October, skipped the hearing to meet with federal officials.

After a board meeting days later, Santoro read a prepared statement, saying he had “meant no disrespect.”

The board that hired him skipped two meetings this year, delaying its budget adoption until Oct. 26, four months into the fiscal year. At that meeting, Meisel, the board vice chairman, bristled when one longtime advocate, Steve Thorpe, scolded him for leaving the room during the public-comment period and for curtailing speaking time.

“You can get over it, candidly,” Meisel replied. “If I’m going to leave the dais because I intend to be disrespectful to somebody or I don’t want to listen to them, believe me -- I’m not bashful. I will say, ‘I’m leaving the dais because I don’t want to hear you.’ That was not the case and no disrespect was intended.”

Meeting minutes in recent months show board members didn’t publicly respond to many questions raised by Clift and his fellow regulars, 68-year-old South Orange attorney David Peter Alan and 77-year-old Orrin Getz, a retired telecommunications manager from New City, New York. Their topics included post-Hurricane Sandy resiliency spending, a $446.3 million bridge replacement and contracts related to the $25 billion Gateway rail project.

Nancy Snyder, an agency spokeswoman, described the public-comments periods as an open forum where members “frequently interact with the speakers.”

“During this open dialogue, issues can be resolved or staff members can be tasked with probing deeper into an area of public concern, whether that is specific to a single customer or an effort to improve the organization as a whole,” she said.

Alan, who relies on bus and rail because a disability prevents him from driving, is a 12-year veteran of the meetings and said that is an unrealistically positive spin. The board “was never approachable in any way, shape or form,” he said.