Heads of transportation committee say hearing will be held on port authority issues next month
Following requests from three of the region's lawmakers, the heads of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee have decided to convene a public hearing next month to discuss the recent upheaval at the Connecticut Port Authority.
"We need to get a handle on what's happening with the board of directors and what their process is for repairing public trust," said Rep. Roland LeMar, D-96th District, one of the committee co-chairs.
LeMar said he and co-chair Sen. Carlo Leone, D-27th District, are working to finalize an exact date for the hearing. The port authority reports to the committee, which does not have direct oversight over the organization given it is a quasi-public agency.
Leone said the hearing would also help to determine whether any legislative action is warranted.
"People have questions. If there's answers we can provide, we want to be able to do so," Leone said.
Max Reiss, director of communications for Gov. Ned Lamont, issued a statement Monday saying the governor is supportive of a potential public hearing by the Transportation Committee.
Reiss added that Lamont "has instructed his Chief of Staff and (Chief Operating Officer) to conduct an in-depth review of the Port Authority, as part of a larger assessment of the state's 10 Quasi-Public Agencies, to ensure that future issues of similar magnitude do not arise."
The executive director of the port authority, Evan Matthews, is on paid leave — a decision that was not disclosed publicly, and that was made by the recently instituted chairwoman of the port authority's board, who has since resigned. The reason behind Matthews being on leave remains unknown. The Day has a pending Freedom of Information request for information regarding Matthews.
Bonnie Reemsnyder, who is also the first selectwoman of Old Lyme, resigned as chairwoman at a special meeting of the board last week following news reports that the port authority paid her daughter $3,000 for six photographs hanging in its Old Saybrook offices.
Reemsnyder said at the meeting that her daughter would be repaying the money and that she was resigning to allow the port authority to move forward with its work. Gov. Ned Lamont called for Reemsnyder's resignation in advance of the meeting.
Reemsnyder replaced Scott Bates, deputy secretary of the state, who had served as chairman from the port authority's inception until the end of June. Bates is still a member of the board.
The board is expected to meet again on Aug. 7 to vote on a new chairman. David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, who is vice chairman of the board, is acting as chairman until a new leader is selected.
The port authority tapped recently retired Navy Capt. Paul Whitescarver, the previous commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, to serve as an executive consultant for an expected period of four to five months to advise on day-to-day operations and management functions, as well as technical aspects of the port authority's activities.
Meanwhile, the Connecticut Auditors of Public Accounts is beginning its biennial audit of the port authority and other state agencies. John Geragosian, a state auditor, told The Day that there has been a whistleblower complaint alleging management and misuse of funds at the port authority and that the complaint should be reviewed as part of the audit.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-19th District, was the first to call for a hearing to discuss how the port authority will navigate the recent leadership changes and its plan for moving forward with the development of State Pier in New London for offshore wind.
"We cannot allow job-creating opportunities to fall by the wayside as the Connecticut Port Authority searches for a new Executive Director and Chair of the Board," Osten said in a statement last week. "This informational hearing will provide us with an opportunity to learn more about how the Port Authority is managing these leadership changes and ensure this important project, and many others, move forward."
State Sen. Heather Somers, R-18th District, and state Rep. Devin Carney, R-23rd District, made a similar request on Sunday, issuing a joint statement requesting that the committee hold a public hearing regarding "the leadership changes and related controversies" regarding the port authority.
State Sen. Paul Formica, R-20th District, whose district includes New London, said by phone Monday that "some kind of public forum" is warranted. He said the leadership of the state Energy and Technology Committee, of which he is a ranking member, has indicated it would like to take similar action with regards to the wind deal.
The port authority was formed by law in 2014 to market the state's maritime economy, including the state's three deepwater ports and its small to mid-sized harbors. In recent years, the port authority has been involved in selecting a new operator for State Pier, and in negotiating a $93 million deal to turn the facility into a staging area for the offshore wind industry.
The other parties to the deal — Gateway, which was selected at the start of this year as the new port operator for State Pier, and Bay State Wind, a joint effort by wind giant Ørsted and electric utility Eversource — said in statements last week that they remain committed to the future of offshore wind development at State Pier.
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