Port authority follies no laughing matter

The sideshows eclipsed the main event Tuesday when the state legislature’s Transportation Committee held a five-hour hearing into problems at the Connecticut Port Authority.

First the legislature's Republican leaders — Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides — called for Democrat Scott Bates’ removal as deputy secretary of the state. Fasano said Bates should be temporarily removed pending further review of his four years leading the port authority board as chairman. Klarides wants Bates' immediate resignation.

This had all the appearances of playing politics.

There are certainly legitimate questions surrounding Bates’ tenure as authority chairman, including the appearance that he steered consulting work to former associates and signed off on the purchase of $3,250 in wall art produced by the daughter of another board member, Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, who succeeded him as chair.

Bates has not publicly responded to any of this. He needs to. More on that later.

Bates stepped down as chairman just before the port authority began to unravel, and more recently resigned from the board entirely. Reemsnyder also resigned.

However, Republicans need to present evidence of wrongdoing in Bates’ paying job as deputy secretary of the state before they make the case for his removal. There are all manner of reviews underway of the authority’s problems during Bates’ unpaid volunteer work as board chair, but until and unless they establish outright corruption, calls for his removal as deputy secretary appear premature and political.

Adding to the perception Fasano has found a bone to gnaw on, Wednesday he called for the review of every bid offered and every contract signed by the Connecticut Port Authority. A reasonable request, but the timing was suspect.

Then there was the drama surrounding landscaper Kevin Blacker of Noank, a citizen advocate who has made it his mission to dig into the operations of the authority, in the process helping uncover its dysfunction. He fears a deal to primarily utilize State Pier in New London for support of offshore wind-power farms could derail his own, dubious, dreams of farming and shipping rocks to fortify against sea-level rise.

After arriving for the hearing, Blacker was questioned by Capitol state police. While perhaps heavy-handed, the police concern was justified. Over the weekend Blacker had sent out a rambling email whose recipients included the governor and featured the subject line: “Governor Lamont is a yellow-belly, My blood will be his hands.”

In the email he expressed fears for his and his family’s safety because he is challenging powerful interests, writing “you law makers will be complicit in our deaths or harm to us or our families.”

Given the times, writing about the governor, blood and deaths will get you questioned at the Capitol.

As for meat of the hearing itself, it was much leaner than hoped. Lawmakers did learn how truly badly the authority was operated. State auditors testified the authority, which receives $400,000 in annual appropriations, had no procedures for distribution of grants and other financial matters, did not maintain an accounting system for its bank accounts, and had no personnel rules.

David Kooris, interim chair, confirmed that former Executive Director Evan Matthews was placed on administrative leave for outrageous comments he made to Day columnist David Collins in attacking Blacker’s credibility. Kooris is also deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

Given the findings of the auditors — and more is to come — how the office was run would also seem good reason to give Matthews the boot.

The committee needs to reconvene and hear from Bates and Matthews, either with their voluntary appearances or via subpoena. Neither showed Tuesday, Bates reportedly on a family trip.

Bates, who lives in Stonington, has told others, privately, that the published characterizations of his performance as chairman are unfair and misleading and that the authority’s accomplishments are being dismissed. Given that, he should welcome questioning without force of subpoena.

This circus atmosphere has shaken public trust and presents a big problem for Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration, which is negotiating a $93 million public-private partnership, handed off to it by the authority, to expand and upgrade State Pier in New London. The partners are Ørsted, the Denmark-based wind energy company, and Eversource.

Before any deal is signed the public must be given details. A hearing set for Sept. 17 in New London will provide a chance for public comment. State legislators and local leaders must be given time to weigh in. The deal may have to be adjusted. This can't be rushed.

Connecticut can’t afford to repeat the port authority follies with a deal this big. 

Editor's note: The editorial was updated.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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