One resignation won't pop the port authority scandal bubble

I was pleased Gov. Ned Lamont would not tolerate the chairwoman of the Connecticut Port Authority allowing her daughter to sell photographs to the publicly funded agency for $3,000 and demanded her resignation.

But I wonder why the governor wasn't similarly offended that the former authority chairman, Scott Bates, deputy secretary of the state, organized the hiring of an associate who has no port management experience with a no-bid, $50-an-hour consulting contract that didn't even specify what consulting work he would do.

Bates, who resigned the authority chairmanship not long before the agency descended into turmoil, now soldiers on as a board authority member. I hope the governor's different treatment of the former chairwoman and chairman isn't because Bates' wife works in the Lamont administration.

The governor on Wednesday pitched Chairwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder's resignation as some kind of grand resolution of the scandals that now dog the agency, from the executive director being on leave for unexplained reasons to the apparent firing of the office manager, as well as a whistleblower alleging management misuse of funds.

Reemsnyder's resignation explains none of that, and neither the governor nor anyone on the port authority will discuss any of it.

It is curious that they won't talk about the executive director's unexplained leave or the firing of the office manager, because they are personnel issues, but a spokesman for the governor blithely explained in news accounts the reason why the chairwoman's resignation was demanded.

There is nothing in Freedom of Information laws that would prevent them from discussing and explaining the sudden departure of an executive who has been negotiating a $93 million deal with an international conglomerate. Days went by before they would even acknowledge he was gone.

The overriding dysfunction of the agency, in my opinion, has a lot to do with the way former Chairman Bates ran it like some kind of secret society, planning, with no public knowledge or input, a vast $93 million reorganization of the port of New London, arranging to turn it over to a Danish wind company and essentially curtailing traditional cargo handling here for the better part of the next two decades.

The executive director was told not to talk to the media. Responses to Freedom of Information requests were stalled. When I asked to see the study from which a drawing depicting the area between the two piers filled in, the Bates associate hired as a consultant lied and told me it was a single drawing commissioned from an artist as a concept.

That lie was meant to deceive the public. Not only was there no public input about the enormous changes planned for the port and its use, a project that will cost tens of millions of state dollars, but the public was deceived about what was going on.

Before the executive director was put on leave by then Chairwoman Reemsnyder, he threatened the citizen gadfly responsible for raising alarms about the port transformation plans with a police investigation.

This isn't the way a public agency in Connecticut should be run, and the governor needs to do more than crack down on the photo scandal to restore public trust.

Plans to consummate the deal to change the historic purpose of New London's deepwater port, displacing routine deliveries of things like road salt and evicting a fleet of fishermen, are on a fast track for a vote by the board within the next few weeks.

Maybe Lamont and Bates have the right formula for transforming New London's port and the tens of millions of borrowed state dollars they plan to use will be money well spent.

But how about cracking the back-room doors a bit and letting in a little sunlight? See what the public, especially the people of New London, think. Spend people's money and forever change important transportation infrastructure with some openness.

I can't think of any project of such magnitude, requiring such a large investment of public money, that was planned and executed to this extent in secret. Well, actually, Fort Trumbull in New London comes to mind, and we all know how that turned out and what happened to the governor who orchestrated it.

The governor signaled Wednesday he wanted to reorganize the port authority and move beyond events that have been "a sideshow and distraction." I can't think of a better way to do that than with honesty and transparency.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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