Port authority shouldn't rush into secret $93 million deal while scandal roars

We certainly have had our differences over the years, but my new hero is state Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague, who has called for a legislative hearing on the troubled Connecticut Port Authority.

This is the only sane thing I've heard from Hartford as the crippled port authority — its chairman having resigned in scandal, its executive director placed on leave for undisclosed reasons, the office manager fired and auditors preparing to look into a whistleblower complaint about misuse of funds — races to sign a secret deal to transform the port of New London.

They are apparently weeks away from signing a backroom deal for a $93 million transformation of the port's two piers into a wind assembly facility for a foreign company, closing the port to traditional cargo for the better part of the next two decades, maybe forever.

The plan is to complete the document, circulate it confidentially to board members then meet to slam the gavel down on it, the public be damned.

The wimpy Republican leadership in Hartford actually celebrated Gov. Ned Lamont's demand for the port authority board chairman to resign, a cosmetic fix applied while his administration refuses to explain what's going on at an agency where corruption warning signs are wildly blinking.

Amid all this turmoil, why is Lamont still rushing to sign away the port?

Are the Republicans crazy? They should borrow some of Democrat Osten's determination and demand some accountability from the Democratic governor.

The authority's exiled executive director, just before he was shown the door, disclosed to me that the deal which the governor announced with fanfare in May is still not signed and that the talks were continuing because Connecticut's interests need to be protected. Will they be protected in his absence?

The authority is using an exemption from Freedom of Information laws that allows discussion of leases behind closed doors to secretly facilitate this massive project, for which the debt-diet governor has pledged $35 million in borrowed money, without any public review or input whatsoever.

It's an insult to open government, the governor thumbing his nose at the people who are to be made to pay for it.

Here are some questions I would ask Lamont lieutenants if Osten succeeds in getting her hearing:

  • The permit applications to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection suggests that alternatives to the plan that would use temporary structures instead of filling in the seven acres between the piers would cost more money. How much more and why wasn't that given more consideration?
  • Other proposals to use the port for wind assembly also included keeping its use for general cargo. Why were those rejected?
  • The port operator, Gateway New London, which would be a party to the lease and is involved with the talks, would divert general cargo from New London to the port facilities it operates in New Haven, essentially shutting down the competition for that business which now exists here. Should New London lose its port capabilities to create a more profitable privately-owned port in New Haven?
  • The permit applications state that New London is the only place this work could be done, with long descriptions of why other ports in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Bridgeport would not work. Shouldn't that give the state an enormous negotiating advantage? Why is the state offering to pay $35 million for the port-ruining project when the rich company that is going to make enormous profits selling electricity at above-market rates has nowhere else to go?
  • What consideration was given to abandoning New London's advantageous rail-water freight link, with no more traditional cargo coming to the pier?
  • What consideration has been given to the water-dependent uses, hosting a fishing fleet and delivery of cargo like road salt for local roads, that would be replaced by wind turbine assembly? Is that manufacturing considered a water-dependent use in accordance with state law?
  • Why are alternative plans that would protect the historic Central Vermont Railroad Pier, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, not being proposed? Why would you seek approvals to destroy a protected natural resource in Connecticut, a well-documented historic asset, on behalf of a Danish conglomerate?
  • Why has the governor gone back on his promise to give the mayor of New London a seat at the table, a place on the port authority board? Is there no promise he won't break?
  • What's the great rush?

I'm all for wind power, and I know that Sen. Osten's interest here is putting the project on track because of the union jobs it might create. That's great, but it needs to be done openly and deliberately, with assurances that New London's and Connecticut's best interests are served, not just those of some who stand to profit enormously.

I'm counting on Sen. Osten to get answers to these pressing questions, as Republicans sit on their hands or compliment the governor on his whitewash.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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