Op-ed: Strengthen Checks and Balances Over State Agencies

Op-ed: Strengthen Checks and Balances Over State Agencies

The following editorial by Senator Kevin O’Toole (R-40) was published in the 2/28/2012 edition of The Record

Once labeled a patronage pit, and worse, it is now an agency that delivers value to taxpayers. The new PVSC epitomizes what can be done to overhaul wasteful public agencies when we have an administration committed to ending taxpayer abuse.

While the makeover of the PVSC is an example of effective reform, it might only be an isolated example of change unless the Legislature acts to ensure that reforms at other agencies are attainable.

For many years the PVSC was the worst-kept secret among political insiders as a political dumping ground. That changed after the election of Governor Christie. A year into his administration, Christie took the unprecedented step of demanding the resignations of six of the agency’s commissioners. He issued an executive order vesting most of the statutory authority of the commissioners with the new executive director, Wayne Forrest, a former county prosecutor.

With the commissioners out of the way, Forrest had the ability to start to remake this bloated agency. He was able to change the culture of abuse, political patronage and misuse of public resources…

We have all read about the four high-ranking PVSC employees who have been indicted for abuse of power and misuse of PVSC resources for personal work on the homes of their relatives, friends and themselves.

Drastic cuts

The PVSC once employed 758 people and now employs 494, down 264 people. Gone are the political hangers-on, the lazy and the unqualified. Dozens of make-work jobs have been eliminated, such as the employee who was paid more than $80,000 annually plus benefits to pump gas.

Scores of vehicles that were handed out as perks to favored employees have now been parked. Legal services, now in house, have saved $1 million in the second half of 2011.

One of the most offensive practices, allowing outside vendors to be eligible for state pension and health benefits, has been halted.

With some 250 fewer people, the agency is now streamlined and able to deliver quality service to 48 towns, in five counties. Because of the workplace reforms that were made, employees now know their promotions and raises are based on the skill and commitment they bring to work, not thanks to their political godfathers.

For the first time in decades, there is a real, objective hiring process. Job openings are posted internally and on the commission web site. Résumés and qualifications are reviewed, and applicants are interviewed and vetted by a team of professionals.

The changes at the PVSC are real, and they benefit 1.4 million users. The past two budgets crafted by Forrest have reduced spending by more than $6.3 million.

For decades, the PVSC existed on inertia. Previous governors and legislators knew how corrupt the PVSC was, but few wanted to take on the task of dismantling it. The agency seemingly was untouchable by Trenton.

Christie showed that the PVSC was not beyond the reach of the state’s chief executive.

Current and future governors need more tools to control regional agencies that abuse taxpayer money. There is bi-partisan sponsorship behind S-714 and S-770, which would force regional commissions, such as the PVSC and the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, to keep minutes of their meetings and to forward those minutes to the governor’s office for approval. If the governor finds the commission’s actions are not in the best interest of taxpayers, he can veto the minutes, thereby nullifying the actions of the commission.

Minutes not yet posted

The legislative Democratic majority has not posted these bipartisan reforms for committee review and debate, legislation that will make all agencies accountable to taxpayers.

Ensuring that taxpayers are provided with checks and balances over any agency that spends their money should be a common-sense initiative by the Legislature. With meaningful reform of quasi-governmental agencies within easy reach, the passage of the senate bills S-714 and S-770 should be a no-brainer.

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Kevin O’Toole is a state senator representing Bergen, Essex and Passaic counties in Legislative District 40.