You know things are bad at the Delaware River Port Authority when union leader John J. "Doc" Dougherty is the person leading the fight for good governance.
Dougherty has long been a backroom political operator. But he is on the side of the angels in his fight to bring more openness to a longtime patronage pit.
As a DRPA commissioner, Dougherty wants to improve some of the dubious business practices at the bistate agency that operates four toll bridges over the Delaware River and runs the PATCO commuter rail service between Philadelphia and South Jersey.
In particular, Dougherty wants to end the DRPA's practice of closed-door meetings and limit the awarding of no-bid contracts.
Such steps should be standard operating procedure at any public agency - especially a political rat nest like the DRPA, which churns through $300 million a year without much accountability.
The DRPA has long been a bit of a black-box operation, where patronage jobs and contracts tend to go to politically well-connected power brokers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. With influential insiders from two states fighting over the pork, wasteful spending too often is doubled.
Just consider the years-long spending spree the DRPA went on, handing out tens of millions of dollars to a hodgepodge of economic development projects on both sides of the river, including sports arenas, concert halls, and museums. All the while, the agency piled up mounds of debt that must be paid back with interest. It has been forced to dramatically hike bridge tolls to pay expenses.
Many of those spending decisions were made behind closed doors. The DRPA's monthly board meetings - now chaired by Gov. Rendell's former chief of staff, Ballard Spahr attorney John Estey - have long been a sham. The board usually holds court in secret during so-called caucus sessions, and then meets in public to rubber-stamp decisions that were already made.
Dougherty plans to introduce a resolution that would end the closed-door caucuses and force the board to conduct its business in public. He also wants to require public bidding on any contract worth more than $25,000. The current threshold is $100,000.
Both measures would help bolster public confidence in the agency. They should be adopted.
Meanwhile, the DRPA is embroiled in several personnel issues that call for further scrutiny. The agency's $123,806-a-year corporate secretary, John Lawless, was escorted from the office in April but remains on the payroll.
Dougherty wants the DRPA's general counsel, Richard Brown, to resign. And Gov. Christie is blocking the rehiring of John Matheussen, the agency's $219,474-a-year CEO, until some of the issues are resolved.