The following column, which I wrote, was published in the Star-Ledger on January 18.

Murphy stumbles with NJT purge

 

By David Peter Alan  Guest Columnist

 

I have been a frequent rider on NJ Transit throughout its entire 39-year history and a citizen-advocate for 33 of those years, and I have seen the agency go downhill firsthand.  Gov. Phil Murphy has repeatedly criticized NJT and the service it has provided to its riders lately.  He has rightly blamed the policies of the Christie Administration, including a lack of funding.

 

Citizen advocates have made the same complaints for years, and we were hopeful that a new governor would make meaningful, positive reforms.  However, we cannot agree with Murphy’s initial action before he took office: firing innocent employees who did not cause the agency's internal woes or the difficulties that riders face daily.

 

Part of the Murphy plan is to fire employees who were Christie patronage appointments.  Star-Ledger reporter Larry Higgs and reporters for other media outlets named some of them last month.  We  know who they are, too.  If the new administration wants to use appropriate legal means to remove them, we will be glad to see them go.

 

Last month’s firings, however, bear no resemblance to any such legal method..  A number of NJT employees were given “resign-or-else” letters on orders from the Murphy transition team – not the same list of hangers-on of which we read, but also employees who have given long and distinguished service to the agency, including some who never had policymaking authority.  This was not the standard housecleaning of a new administration, but executive overreach into the inner workings of an agency designed by statute to be independent from state government.

 

The Transportation Act of 1979 chartered New Jersey Transit, specifically establishing it as a corporation independent of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which previously had direct authority over the state’s transit.  NJT is not a state agency under the direct control of the governor.  Instead, it is an independent body, with its own board of directors, and its own rules and procedures.  The governor has influence at NJT and appoints the members of the board, but the statute does not allow the governor to micromanage the agency through such decisions as hiring and firing employees.

 

Despite this legally-mandated separation, a number of NJT employees were given ultimatum letters, on orders from the Murphy transition team, through the office of NJT's departing executive director.  They should not have been coerced into giving up their jobs.

 

The managers at issue joined NJT before Christie took office, so they are clearly not his protégés.  We believe they are doing the best they can, especially since the Christie administration never gave them the funding or the backing necessary for the level of service that we riders need and deserve.  Other employees targeted are secretaries with no line authority, whose duties are strictly administrative.  They are not political hacks and do not deserve to be forced out of their jobs.

 

This purge designed to improve the agency may, in fact, have the opposite effect.  Eliminating experienced and dedicated managers would wipe out institutional knowledge that enabled NJ Transit to survive years of abuse and neglect.  This could lead to even worse performance.  Murphy's action may also give the public the illusion that the central problem is simply bad management due solely to political patronage.  In reality, citizen transit advocates strongly believe that the underlying problem is the chronic lack of funding.  Even the best managers can only do so much with limited, dwindling resources.  If Murphy is serious about fixing NJ Transit, he will make a major commitment to adequate, stable funding.  Otherwise, the daily delays and breakdowns, and the risk of accidents, will increase.

 

We hope that Gov. Murphy will rescind the mistake made by his staff, allow the innocent people who are slated to lose their jobs to continue in the service of the riding public, and enable the sort of transportation professionals who gave NJT the good reputation that it once had to operate the transit we need and deserve.

 

David Peter Alan is chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent organization that has advocated for better transit since 1979.  He lives and practices law in South Orange.