Democrats should join GOP, hold authority to account

After months of raising questions on the direction and management of the Connecticut Port Authority, I was initially encouraged by news of a public hearing to be held by the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee in Hartford. As a local official who is keenly interested in the future of New London harbor and its impact on southeastern Connecticut’s economy, it was my hope a robust hearing would finally lift the veil of secrecy over this board, its stewardship of taxpayer money and its management of its obligations.

Unfortunately, the Transportation Committee hearing Monday was underwhelming, merely reinforcing facts that were already known, while the key issues and true accountability were punted until another day. It was a classic Hartford case of hurry-up, look busy for the TV cameras, shrug shoulders and hope the problem goes away.

The problems and lingering skepticism at the port authority are not going to be resolved until those who have been running it stand accountable for their mismanagement at this quasi-public agency. The legislature must re-evaluate whether this organization can be trusted with promoting commerce and handling complex negotiations with serious implications for southeastern Connecticut.

The problems with the authority are not new. State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, a Democrat, has repeatedly raised red flags with the financial practices of the authority and yet no changes in management or fiscal discipline occurred. During the hearing Monday, state auditors disclosed the agency was bereft of virtually any financial controls or procedures for two years and were unable to obtain and produce routine financial documents.

It is little wonder then that the authority was ripe for abuse, petty graft, sweetheart contracts for dubious services or puzzling personnel decisions, all while cloaked in secrecy from the press, legislators and the public. It took a whistleblower complaint to shine a light on the authority and pry open its inner workings to begin uncovering potential maleficence and mismanagement.

Former authority chairman and Old Lyme First Selectman Bonnie Reemsynder’s letter of explanation on the authority’s $3,000 payment to her daughter for scenic frame photos is stunning in its tone deafness and refusal to accept responsibility.

If Reemsynder, former authority chairman Scott Bates and executive director Evan Matthews, currently on administrative leave, believe they did nothing wrong, then why were they absent from the hearing Monday? Why have they not agreed to answer tough questions and submit to true accountability? And, why, if they refuse, are Democratic committee leaders not compelling them to answer questions at a robust and transparent public hearing?

This troubling chapter, especially considering others in our state’s recent history, further cast doubt on the quasi-public model for pursuing laudable public goals – suggesting entities set up with this sort of structure are uniquely ripe for double-dealing, mismanagement, corruption and little transparency.

I’ve been down this road before when I led the charge to bring greater accountability to the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative (CMEEC).

While struggling Connecticut ratepayers wrestled with the highest electric costs in the continental United States, executives at CMEEC used funds intended to stabilize rates to fund extravagant trips for their own amusement. The ringleaders of this behavior worked hard to hide their activities.

We’ve made great strides to hold those executives accountable, restore confidence for ratepayers and taxpayers and increase transparency at utility co-ops – but it took many months and years of dedicated work by legislators, journalists and law enforcement. That work continues.

Accountability does not happen by accident and will not come to the port authority until Democrats in Hartford demand answers from the politically connected who ran the agency.

We cannot allow the future of New London harbor to fall victim to this firestorm of mismanagement and loss of confidence in the authority.

There is a $93 million un-executed contract in the balance between a wind energy company and the authority over the use of harbor facilities as a staging area for the development of a significant wind farm project at sea. This project has many supporters but there are also many questions as to its financial viability and impact on the environment. Allowing one client to completely occupy a harbor requires more study, more public input and, certainly, more confidence in the officials tasked with finalizing the details before this long-term commitment is sealed.

We need to hear more from the governor on how this important issue will be managed before there can be adequate confidence in the process.

In the meantime, the press for accountability must continue, former authority officials must make themselves available for questioning and Democrats, in control of the legislature, must demand true accountability, not just host informational hearings for TV cameras.

Only then, can the public regain confidence in the authority and the process for negotiating New London harbor’s future.

Heather Somers, a Republican, is a state senator representing Connecticut’s 18th District.

 

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