It isn't every day I wind up on the same side of a political issue as John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty. Last time I checked, the Philly labor legend was furious over columns written during his failed 2008 campaign for Vince Fumo's old state Senate seat.
Two years later, the ultimate insider again is casting himself as a reformer, taking aim at one of my favorite targets: the Delaware River Port Authority.
Dougherty, a DRPA commissioner since 2004, declined to tell me how, when or why he suddenly realized he's been presiding over an institutionally unaccountable toxic political swamp. What matters is that his eyes are open now; like me and you, he's sickened by the view.
In increasingly agitated letters to DRPA brass this month, Dougherty demanded transparency, austerity and efficiency from the bistate patronage den that owns and operates four bridges and the PATCO high-speed line. He sounds more like New Jersey's Republican Gov. Christie than a Democratic power broker who operates most effectively behind closed doors.
In short order, Dougherty filled a full-size bandwagon.
Longtime DRPA enablers mustered outrage over the grotesque pay, perks and pension padding they engineered. On Monday, legislators on both sides of the river called for a federal investigation. On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner admitted concern "over the revelations of management and fiscal improprieties" and embarrassment that "old problems continue to fester."
In football, piling on results in a 15-yard penalty. In politics, it's an art form to behold.
DRPA officials will soon unveil a slew of good-government fixes to put out what Vice Chairman Jeff Nash calls "the firestorm."
Gone will be $9,000-to-$16,000 car allowances that 11 execs collect on top of six-figure salaries. Gone, too, free bridge passage for all 536 DRPA employees and 321 retirees. (The perk dates to 1969, long before E-Z Pass made it so easy to abuse.)
From now on, every contract, regardless of how piddling, will be discussed and voted on by the full 16-member board - political animals from both parties and states who may have felt slighted by being cut out of the splitting of spoils.
Still being debated: Barring commissioners and directors from meddling in hiring.
Dougherty tried, and failed, to install a close friend as the DRPA's top cop. The $180,000 job went to Michael Joyce, a connected Jersey lawyer forced to resign Tuesday after getting caught letting his daughter use E-Z Pass for free.
Nash, a Camden County freeholder and emissary of the South Jersey Democratic machine, has been a DRPA commissioner since 2002. I reminded him that we'd been discussing the ingrained excess for years. Nothing's really new here.
"It doesn't matter where or why the firestorm began," Nash contends. "This is an opportunity to make changes at the authority so there is more transparency, no suggestion of conflicts or nepotism or political dealing."
But the DRPA exists for conflicts and nepotism. The organizational chart ought to include name, title and political patron. Hasn't this cleanup "opportunity" been there from the start?
Nash pauses. "Better late than never, I guess."
For my money, Christie's most brilliant political move of late has been driving home the point that no public official - school superintendent, sewage overseer, toll taker - ought to earn more than the $175,000 he makes as governor.
Following Christie's lead rather than being trampled, Nash vows to "reexamine" DRPA's famously fat salaries. As I type, seven execs pull down more than the magic number and scads more earn six figures.
Cheer if you dare, but don't expect the bureaucratic browbeating to affect your daily commute or the cost of a roadtrip down the Shore.
Bridge tolls will increase again, to $5, next year. Reform may be the flavor of the day, but at the DRPA, drivers always pay.