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DRPA commissioner John J. "Doc" Dougherty questions board's practices

Philadelphia labor leader John J. "Doc" Dougherty has intensified his attack on business practices at the Delaware River Port Authority.

Philadelphia labor leader John J. "Doc" Dougherty has intensified his attack on business practices at the Delaware River Port Authority.

Dougherty, who is one of eight Pennsylvania commissioners on the DRPA board, said he would challenge several agency practices at its meeting on Wednesday, including closed-door meetings and no-bid contracts.

Dougherty's challenge comes at a critical moment for the politically connected DRPA, a $300 million-a-year agency that operates four toll bridges over the Delaware River and runs the PATCO commuter rail service between Philadelphia and South Jersey.

The contract of the agency's chief executive, John Matheussen, expired Saturday, and Gov. Christie said he would not permit Matheussen to be rehired for a third term until problems at the authority were addressed.

In the meantime, Matheussen, a former Republican New Jersey state senator, will retain his $219,474-a-year post as a holdover executive, based on a letter of authorization signed last week by board chairman John Estey and vice chairman Jeffrey Nash.

The post traditionally has been filled with a nominee from New Jersey's governor.

"The governor is aware of the abuses that have been reported on at DRPA, and our authorities division is currently taking a closer look at the situation before Gov. Christie takes any action," Christie's deputy press secretary, Kevin Roberts, said Monday.

"Obviously, any movement by the DRPA commissioners to begin addressing the issues is a welcome sign, but we will still wait for a fuller assessment of the situation at DRPA."

Christie specifically is concerned about reports that the DRPA failed to follow its own bylaws and permitted "questionable expenditures like including car allowances in salaries (possibly to pad pensions)," Roberts said in an e-mail.

The agency also is embroiled in a legal fight with its former corporate secretary, John Lawless, who was summarily removed from office in April. Lawless, a former Republican-turned-Democratic Pennsylvania state legislator from Montgomery County and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2002, was escorted from his DRPA office by security officials, but he continues to draw his $123,806 annual salary.

DRPA officials have declined to discuss the reasons for Lawless' removal, and Lawless referred questions to his attorney, who could not be reached immediately for comment.

Lawless has filed two complaints against the DRPA with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming discriminatory treatment based on an unspecified disability.

Dougherty, who last week said he would seek the resignation of DRPA general counsel Richard Brown, stepped up his offensive in an e-mail Friday to his fellow commissioners.

Dougherty, who is the business manager for IBEW Local 98 in Philadelphia and was an unsuccessful candidate in 2008 for the Pennsylvania Senate, said he would introduce resolutions Wednesday to increase transparency and accountability at the DRPA, long a patronage haven for Pennsylvania and New Jersey politicians.

One resolution would abolish the Port Authority's practice of closed-door "caucus" meetings before each monthly public board meeting. In those private sessions, the New Jersey members and the Pennsylvania members meet separately to discuss issues and question staffers before emerging to cast their votes in public. The public voting is usually unanimous.

"If we abolish the caucus system and reduce the amount of time we spend meeting privately, we can increase the amount of time in public session, which will give the public more opportunities to provide input on our important decisions," Dougherty said in his e-mail.

"I don't feel like spending an hour prepping for a meeting to validate the decisions made by two or three people," Dougherty said Monday.

Another resolution would reduce, from $100,000 to $25,000, the amount of money that can be paid for products or services without a public bidding process.

"I also will push for a disclosure clause on all DRPA [requests for proposal] and contracts to avoid nepotism and the appearance of inside sweetheart deals," Dougherty wrote. "I also will ask that the last two years of no-bid contracts that were awarded by the DRPA are made public."

"I'm a commissioner and I don't know what contracts have been awarded . . . that should concern the public," Dougherty said Monday.

Dougherty said he would also introduce a resolution "seeking to provide individual commissioners with more input."

"As it stands, the chair and vice chair are able to make a wide variety of decisions between meetings. This idea may require biweekly meetings," Dougherty wrote.

"These issues are not going away," he wrote. "Neither am I."

Nash, the DRPA vice chairman who is also a Camden County freeholder, said the board would respond to Dougherty's issues, though he did not say there was support for Dougherty's resolutions.

"Clearly Commissioner Dougherty has been frustrated, and we need to address that," Nash said Monday. "Everyone wants transparency, and everyone wants to do what is in the best interest of the Port Authority."

Regarding specific complaints, Nash said the board would deal with the issue of lavish car allowances for DRPA executives.

"I can't speak for the board, but I don't believe any of the managers should have car allowances."

Regarding Matheussen's tenure, Nash said he supported a new term for the incumbent but expected no formal action until after Pennsylvania's gubernatorial election in November.

He said Christie had agreed to keeping Matheussen on as a holdover "until the governor can sort through some of the issues."

"There will be a new governor in Pennsylvania, and I think the two governors will work together" to fill the post, Nash said.

He said he believed Matheussen "has done a great job and is deserving of an additional term at the Port Authority."

Gov. Jim McGreevey tapped Matheussen for the DRPA's top post in 2003.

By giving up his $49,000-a-year Fourth District (Gloucester and Camden Counties) Senate seat, Matheussen enabled the Democrats to take control of an evenly divided state Senate after an expensive campaign for his seat was won by Democrat Fred H. Madden.