First lift the dark cloud that hangs over CT Port Authority

Our June 22 editorial, noting that Scott Bates was ending his stint as the first and, up to then, only chairman of the Connecticut Port Authority, concluded with the statement, “Bates helped build a solid foundation on which the authority can grow.”

Wince.

We did not know then that the foundation was instead as compromised as the crumbling foundations that have plagued many homes in eastern Connecticut. It now appears apparent that Bates did not step down as chairman simply for personal reasons, as he claimed at the time, but in a flight to the exit before the foundation collapsed.

On Friday, Bates, who had remained on the authority board after departing as chairman, announced his resignation. It was the right thing to do. It should have happened sooner.

He remains in his job as deputy secretary of state.

This is not to dismiss all that the authority accomplished during Bates’ nearly four years in the leadership position. Creating a strategic vision for the state’s major ports and smaller harbors, which was lacking until the legislature recognized the need for central authority, was a significant achievement.

A competitive process that led in January to the selection of Gateway New London LLC to manage State Pier produced a steady revenue stream to support port authority operations and came with the promise from Gateway of $30 million in infrastructure development. After initially being ignored, New London was cut in on the deal with a portion of the revenue stream.

New London is now positioned to become a big factor in support of offshore wind-power development, the subject of a potential $93 million public-private partnership involving the state that could transform State Pier and serve as a major economic driver.

Unfortunately, the evolving scandal at the port authority — uncovered in large part by the reporting of Day columnist David Collins and the citizen advocacy of authority critic Kevin Blacker — has cast a dark cloud over all this.

Gov. Ned Lamont last week announced an independent audit of the agency’s finances and management practices, in addition to a state audit underway. Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw was given “active involvement in and oversight of” the authority’s finances.

Before the Lamont administration finalizes any State Pier offshore wind development agreement, the governor should let this review run its course. Only then can the public have confidence that the ethical missteps revealed so far, which are largely the misdemeanor variety, did not extend to more serious lapses that tainted selection of a port operator or the pursuit of a wind deal.

We also repeat our request that the governor makes sure any such deal does not foreclose the State Pier to traditional shipping cargo for long periods.

Yet to be revealed is why the authority’s executive director was placed on paid leave about a month ago. The move was taken shortly after Bates stepped down as chairman, but common sense suggests the problems predated Bates’ departure.

Reporting by Collins disclosed that in two instances Bates steered consulting work to associates Bates had formerly worked with, but who did not appear well aligned with the authority’s mission. It is OK to bring in people close to you when you’re running your own business, but in this case tax dollars were being spent. That demands a fair process resulting in the hiring of the most qualified.

Most troubling, perhaps, was the lack of integrity displayed when Bates allowed the person who succeeded him as chair — First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder — to take the fall alone for an improper purchasing decision.

On July 24, Reemsnyder stepped down as chair. Her decision came after news the authority had paid $3,250 for photographs to hang on its Old Saybrook office walls. They were sold by Reemsnyder’s daughter.

In an Aug. 7 column, using emails obtained through the state’s Freedom of Information law, Collins revealed that Reemsnyder had recused herself from the matter and Bates, then chairman, had approved of the purchase in an Aug. 25, 2017 emailed, stating he concurred with the executive director’s decision to buy them.

When Reemsnyder was rightfully under fire, Bates should have come clean that he had OK’d the arrangement.

Bates was not paid for his authority work. No evidence has been revealed he enriched himself. He likely, however, saw it as a possible steppingstone to run for office or gain another gubernatorial appointment. His hubris in steering the authority, in setting his own rules to play by and in failing to step up when things went sour, has certainly damaged those aspirations. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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