NJ Transit reform 2022 report card, part two: Should board committees be more transparent?

In 2019, The Record and NorthJersey.com spent five weeks examining what parts of the NJ Transit reform legislation had and had not been implemented since Gov. Phil Murphy signed it into law on Dec. 20, 2018. Three years since that series, the law still has not been fully enacted. The Record and NorthJersey.com will reexamine what areas of the law have and have not been fulfilled over the course of five weeks leading up to the four-year anniversary of the reform law’s inception. This is the second installment. The first story can be found here.

NJ Transit has dramatically improved how it governs behind the scenes and far from the minds of riders boarding trains and buses. But it still faces scrutiny that some business is being done in private.

Three years ago, the agency's board didn't have enough members to meet minimum staffing requirements for a handful of committees required by law.

But NJ Transit has since checked all the boxes connected to the formation and regular gatherings of its board committees required by the reform legislation. It has even gone further, to ensure that some of those meeting recordings are available online, and expanded the roster of committees, which is not explicitly required by law.

The committee meetings are when board members receive presentations from NJ Transit staff about the related subject matter and drill down on details about what’s going on at the agency and on the vast network of trains, buses and disability transportation services. The questions that come up at these meetings often focus on specific issues, such as why trains are being canceled, problems customers are encountering on the system and whether there are budget concerns on the horizon.

Now, with the majority of board seats filled, the committees all have at least three board representatives and the assignments are visible on the agency’s website.

Jim Smith, an NJ Transit spokesman, said the agency holds some committee meetings more frequently than mandated and "proactively opened committees to the public to increase transparency," including years before the 2018 legislation.

Staff faced scrutiny from board members in 2020 for providing only rosy, good-news information at the meetings and not offering more substantive presentations about where improvements were needed. However, earlier this year, NJ Transit’s board Vice Chair Cedrick Fulton praised staff for making changes and providing a more holistic picture and details about the positives and challenges.

Fulton complimented a recent staff presentation that touched on “real, live issues that impact service every day,”­­­­­ he said in September. “Hearing that kind of helps understand what’s happening out there and adds color to some of the performance challenges.”

New Jersey Transit headquarters photographed on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, in Newark.
New Jersey Transit headquarters photographed on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, in Newark.

More:NJ Transit report card: A chief ethics officer with two jobs and two masters

Board Chair Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti announced in October 2020 the creation of a new committee — not required by law — to focus on energy and sustainability.

The committee’s creation, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said at the time, was to encourage a “strong public engagement process” on environmental issues, particularly as the agency faced criticism over a proposal to build a microgrid power plant that would require fossil fuels to operate.

Meetings of three of NJ Transit’s board committees (sustainability, administration and customer service) are conducted in public, both in person and by teleconference, and give people the opportunity to speak. The agency also goes beyond the requirements of the law by making the recordings of these meetings available on the website.

The other three (audit, capital planning and safety) conduct meetings in private with no minutes, recordings or agendas available to the public.

The audit committee came under scrutiny last year as more details came out about the scandal involving Academy, the bus company accused by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office of defrauding NJ Transit out of more than $15 million over six years. A former NJ Transit internal auditor said the audit committee meetings were often “rushed” and that committee members would “struggle to stay awake,” during the five-year period during which he attended the meetings.

The internal audit department issued several reports over 15 years that flagged issues with Academy, including one that raised concerns about “potential fraud” that was presented to the board just months before it approved Academy for a new $32.6 million contract, according to documents exclusively obtained by The Record and NorthJersey.com. Days later, the attorney general’s fraud case against the company went public.

From 2019:NJ Transit reform report card: Board seats still vacant

Richard Grant, a Hackensack resident, took issue with the decision to make some committees private and others public. He brought this up at the November board meeting, noting that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York makes all board committee materials and meeting videos publicly available on its website.

“Meetings of audit, capital planning and safety — unlike their MTA board committee counterparts for eight years running — are conducted in what amounts to end-to-end closed executive session in order to what? Hear a briefing from staff members?” Grant said. “If the board is about more than approving contracts for projects, if the board is to be more about representing and serving the riding public, it needs transparency.”

Smith, the agency spokesman, did not answer a question about opening up the audit, capital and safety committees.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ Transit reform bill report card board committees transparent