A state lawmaker wants a national search conducted to find a new chief executive for the transportation agency that owns the Atlantic City Expressway and Atlantic City International Airport.

Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said the vacancy in the South Jersey Transportation Authority’s executive director position has created uncertainty at the agency and “impeded its effectiveness.”

Brown, whose legislative district includes the airport and expressway, complained about the authority’s leadership vacuum in a letter Wednesday to state Transportation Commissioner James Simpson. As transportation commissioner, Simpson also serves as chairman of the SJTA’s board of commissioners.

Brown, in an interview Thursday with The Press of Atlantic City, asserted that a national search would eliminate the partisan politics that too often influence senior-level appointments at government authorities and agencies.

“For too long, these agencies have become the dumping ground for patronage jobs,” he said. “This position is too important for us not to fill it with the most competent, most qualified candidate.”

In his letter to Simpson, Brown said the SJTA needs top leadership at a critical time in Atlantic City’s development. The city is in the third year of Gov. Chris Christie’s five-year initiative to revive its struggling economy. The region’s transportation network, particularly the underserved airport, must be developed to protect thousands of jobs and generate more tourism for Atlantic and Cape May counties, Brown said.

Brown said he has not yet had any discussions with Simpson or the Governor’s Office about the SJTA’s leadership vacancy. The governor’s press office did not return messages seeking comment.

The SJTA held its monthly board of commissioners meeting Wednesday, but Simpson did not attend. Other board members said they will defer to the governor to choose the new executive director. However, they stressed that they want to be included in the hiring process. They also urged the governor to name someone from South Jersey.

The authority’s top position has been in question since the former chief executive, Sam Donelson, left in early January to take a job with a private engineering firm. Donelson actually held the title of acting executive director for 18 months. Frank Frankowski, the SJTA’s chief financial officer, has been named interim executive director following Donelson’s departure.

Alluding to Donelson and Frankowski’s acting or interim titles, Brown said in his letter to Simpson that the SJTA has lacked an executive director for 18 months. He urged Simpson to launch a national search for candidates with “impeccable transportation backgrounds.”

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