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Senate President Steve Sweeney, left, with Kevin O’Toole, a former Senator and Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Photo by the New Jersey Globe.

O’Toole likely safe as Port Authority chairman

Murphy faces series of landmines that prevent O’Toole ouster

By David Wildstein, July 27 2019 11:40 am

The quest to fill three open Port Authority seats is hugely complicated and shows the outsized influence Senate President Steve Sweeney has over Gov. Phil Murphy’s ability to get even one appointment to the powerful bi-state authority.

It also shows the robust hold Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole, a former state senator, has over a job he is likely to occupy much longer than just “for now.”  For Murphy to get any foothold at the Port Authority, he’ll need to get past a bulwark of O’Toole’s close friends – with Sweeney at the top of the list.

The Port Authority fight is an illustration of just how much power the New Jersey legislative leader has in a state which constitutionally elects one of the most powerful governors in the nation.  In the absence of following Sweeney’s advice, there can be no Senate consent.

The apparent deal structured by Sweeney to move on Port Authority nominations – the details were first reported by the New Jersey Globe thirteen months ago – comes in three parts: Murphy would get to pick one commissioner; Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg would select one commissioner; and the third seat would go to Hudson County.

It’s now clear that Sweeney has consented to allowing Senate Deputy Majority Leader Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) to make the Hudson pick.

Murphy nominated Amy Rosen, a former New Jersey Transit board member, to the Port Authority board in May 2018.  She replaced Caren Turner, who resigned after an incident with a badge.

Rosen has waited fourteen months without consideration by the Senate while Sweeney was waiting for a package on the other two seats and a public commitment that O’Toole would remain as chairman.

The Montclair Democrat still needs sign off from the four Essex County Senators.  It remains unclear whether Senate President Pro-Tempore Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) still support Rosen’s nomination.

Cunningham is reportedly supporting Jeremy Farrell, a former Jersey City Corporation Counsel under Mayor Steven Fulop, for the Hudson seat.   Farrell would need sign off from Hudson’s three Democratic Senators.  It is possible – maybe even likely – that State Sen. Brian Stack (D-Union City) won’t permit the nomination to move forward.

Several sources confirmed that Weinberg has been advocating on behalf of Christine Ordway as her pick for the Board of Commissioners.  Ordway lives in Franklin Lakes in the 40th district, which requires approval from Senate Deputy Minority Whip Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) – as well as the four Senators who live in Bergen County.

The O’Toole rampart emanates from his personal relationships with Ruiz, Stack, Corrado and State Sen. Joseph Lagana (D-Paramus), who might easily exercise senatorial courtesy, if they must, to keep O’Toole in place.   O’Toole is also personally close with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), who controls which gubernatorial nominations appear before his panel and is never shy about exercising his power.

Even if Murphy were able to penetrate that defensive wall and obtain signoffs from all twelve Senators who would have courtesy over the full package, the governor would still need to break through the final fortification built around O’Toole’s chairmanship: Sweeney.  If the Senate President doesn’t post a nomination for a vote, there is no confirmation – even if 39 other Senators supported it.

O’Toole has even more options after that.

The governor can only recommend a candidate for Port Authority Chairman, but has no legal authority to appoint one.

If Murphy wanted to make a change, he would need to send a letter of request to the commissioners expressing his choice for chairman.  The current Chairman, O’Toole, could form a nominating committee to review the governor’s suggestion and either accept or reject it.  O’Toole appoints the nominating committee, although he is under no by-law obligation to do so.

That would be followed by a vote of the full Board of Commissioners.  O’Toole alone prepares the agenda.

The final palisade is New York, where Murphy and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are not exactly friends.  Port Authority by-laws require at least one affirmative vote from each state to pass any action.  That was designed nearly a century ago to prevent one state from taking unfair advantage of the other if one commissioner was absent from a meeting.

O’Toole appears to have forged a historically unprecedented alliance with the New York-appointed Executive Director, Rick Cotton, Cuomo’s guy.  There’s no reason to believe that relationship could be easily replicated, given the virtual Hundred Year War between the two states at the byzantine agency.

As governor, Murphy has just two statutory powers at the Port Authority: he can appoint commissioners, with the advise and consent of the State Senate; and he can veto the minutes of any action by the commissioners.

Since a war between Governors Christine Todd Whitman and George Pataki in the late 1990s kept the Port Authority from taking any action for more than a year, agency bureaucrats have created an intricate, almost secret system that allows most business to continue without the monthly consent of the governor.

Still, Murphy’s veto power could severely impact the Port Authority’s ability to conduct business.  Murphy has not yet vetoed any of the authority’s actions during his eighteen months in office, even when the Port Authority refused to accept the governor’s demand to resurrect the deputy executive director post and hire his candidate, Joseph Fiordaliso.

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