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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    Little public input on proposed port authority merger

    Hartford ― After receiving just five letters on the proposed merger of the Connecticut Port Authority and Connecticut Airport Authority, the legislative committee that will ultimately decide whether to move the plan forward has no public consensus to guide its deliberations.

    The bill, forwarded by Gov. Ned Lamont, calls for the port authority to cease and instead be rebranded as the Connecticut Maritime Authority as a subsidiary of the airport group.

    Under the proposed new management system, the airport authority’s board would serve as the new maritime authority’s board of directors. The airport authority’s executive director would also serve as chief administrative officer for the new maritime group.

    While five testimonial letters ― two opposing, two supporting and one not taking a stance ― were received by the joint Appropriations Committee ahead of the first public hearing on the bill on Friday, only Jen Kawecki, executive director of the Connecticut Marine Trades Association, made oral comments to members.

    Kawecki said her group opposed the bill out of worries that a fusion of two groups, each with specific and non-overlapping responsibilities, could lead to a loss of “laser focus,” on maritime economic issues, including those related to the recreational boating sector.

    She questioned the wisdom of having the airport authority, with its mission of overseeing Bradley International Airport and five other general aviation airports in the state ― Danielson, Groton-New London, Hartford-Brainard, Waterbury-Oxford and Windham ― take on port-related issues.

    “Foisting a new portfolio of maritime commerce upon them seems inappropriate,” Kawecki said.

    In previously submitted committee testimony, airport authority Executive Director Kevin Dillon wrote his quasi-public organization, established in 2011, is capable of incorporating the functions of a new Connecticut Maritime Authority, but said his group is not coming out either for or against the merger bill.

    Port authority board Chairman David Kooris, in submitted testimony to the legislature as an individual, called the airport authority a “logical partner,” for the port authority, but conceded his board members hold a “diverse range of opinions” on Lamont’s bill.

    Members of both boards previously expressed hesitation and in some cases outright hostility to the merger proposal.

    State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, committee co-chairman, accused the port authority of falling behind on its core responsibilities of marketing the state’s small harbors and marinas, issuing timely Small Harbor Improvement Program grant notices and handling crucial dredging projects.

    After the hearing, Osten said she had not yet decided whether to support the merger bill, which will be scheduled for a committee vote in the coming weeks.

    “I’m not there yet, there’s more to do,” she said, adding the bill may still be modified and more testimony elicited before the committee votes.

    Osten said a merger could nullify current oversight rules requiring the port authority to submit regular reports. Those requirements were the result of criticism over how the authority handled contracts for the redevelopment of State Pier in New London.

    “I don’t necessarily believe the port authority is done making mistakes,” Osten said.

    State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said his committee vote is also not assured. He said the proposal could streamline the administrative side of both operations and foster more collaboration.

    “But there’s the possible loss of autonomy and a dilution of focus,” he said. “Ahead of any vote, I’ll be talking with members of both authorities and local stakeholders. If the merger goes ahead, I’d like legislators to be able to have input on the new authority's work, to be able to hold their feet to the fire, if needed.”

    j.penney@theday.com

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