The Cape May-Lewes ferry is operated by the Delaware River and Bay Authority, one of the many independent authorities over which Gov. Christie is seeking greater control. Dale Gerhard

No one would accuse Gov. Chris Christie of acting weak when it comes to controlling the state’s independent authorities. Except, that is, Christie himself.

What the governor wants is veto power over every free-standing authority, board and commission, to control and question their spending, annually and monthly, right down to budget line items. But he does not have that power in all cases.

“Give me the tools, and I will use them,” he said during a news conference late last month, calling for legislators to expand his executive powers.

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He may soon be given those tools, as members of the Legislature and administration work to give the governor absolute control over authority spending.

Over the past eight weeks, Christie has used his veto power five times against authorities to rein in vendor contracts, legal bills and lobbying costs. The administration also is reviewing all authorities to consider whether some should be eliminated or merged.

But that’s not the whole picture: Among the hundreds of New Jersey’s state and local authorities — each created to perform some function not managed by government itself — about 50 operate as independent or quasi-independent agencies, outside the full control of the executive branch. These groups sometimes collect millions of dollars in revenue from taxpayers, but their members are largely appointed, meaning taxpayers cannot vote them out.

Some of their excesses have become high-profile. Last month, it was revealed that the executive director of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority received an annual salary of $313,000. Because the authority is a regional agency, Christie said, that paycheck was something even he could not block.

In southern New Jersey, Christie has twice vetoed the spending of the Delaware River and Bay Authority — most recently this month, criticizing yearlong vendor contracts worth unspecified amounts greater than $25,000 and a legal contract that failed to specify exactly what legal services the authority was purchasing.

Patterns of unmonitored and wasteful spending go back years: A recent report by the state’s Office of the Inspector General revealed that the South Jersey Transportation Authority operated at least until 2006 without critical financial controls, record-keeping and ethics guidelines as it managed a budget now in excess of $90 million, much of it collected from toll revenue.

More power

The governor’s call for more power may be answered.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, has proposed expanding and standardizing executive power so Christie can wield greater control over every state authority. Those measures, she said, mean “giving the state’s chief executive ultimate authority to block any questionable spending.”

Weinberg ran last November for lieutenant governor with Christie’s opponent, incumbent Gov. Jon S. Corzine, and has emerged as an unlikely ally.

The authorities vary in size. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has a budget of $6.3 billion. The Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority has a budget of $11 million. Administration officials say the task of reordering hundreds of agencies is vast.

And so are the groups’ budgets: The 50 authorities without full executive-branch oversight control a collective budget of billions of dollars, said state Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Bergen, Essex, Passaic.

What legislators say now may give clues to what Deborah Gramiccioni, director of the executive branch’s Authorities Unit, will propose in terms of new authorities oversight by Christie’s deadline of May 15.

If what lawmakers are proposing comes to pass, the plan would require a change in auditing practices and lighten — or eliminate — paychecks for authority board members. At the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, board members earn $18,000 annually. Christie’s transition team reported that 27 executives at independent authorities are paid salaries higher than the governor’s, which is set by law at a maximum of $175,000.

Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, last week proposed that all part-time board members should have their salaries cut and their expense reimbursements shredded.

“Public service, especially in these tougher times, should not be about getting paid,” Polistina said. His bill listed 45 boards that pay members for part-time service. “And the fact that they’re being paid means they’re entering the state pension system and logging credit toward that pension, which I think is just an abuse,” he said.

O’Toole said Thursday that he wanted to see the auditors for agencies such as the Sports and Exposition Authority rotate on a regular basis to allow for more impartial oversight. He said authorities must be treated like private companies.

“Enron’s use of Arthur Andersen led to the downfall of both firms and huge losses,” he said. “In short, employing a single auditor is a recipe for disaster.”

Weinberg’s legislation has been sent to the Senate Committee on State Government, chaired by state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic.

Fewer authorities

But as legislation moves and Christie publicly criticizes authority spending, Gramiccioni is meeting with the agencies to gauge their efficiency and determine the authorities’ core missions with an eye toward possible consolidation.

Among those to meet with Gramiccioni was Jeff Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, which oversees the promotion of Atlantic City and key venues, including Boardwalk Hall.

“What the meeting was really about was giving them some understanding of what we do, how we do it and giving them all the information they need,” Vasser said. “They’re faced with a daunting task. In the first few weeks, they’ve been given a flurry of information.”

Vasser said that from his experience, while Christie may single out high-spending agencies as examples, Gramiccioni’s approach has been more investigative.

“They’re not using a broad-brush approach,” he said Thursday.

Not all authority heads are like Bryan Christiansen, the highly paid executive director of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority. After Christie used Christiansen’s salary as an example of out-of-control spending in February, Christiansen defended the pay and reportedly tried to hire lobbyists to soften the governor’s broadsides. Christiansen ultimately announced his resignation, keeping a two-year salary bonus and his pension intact.

Local authorities

Vasser said he is willing to work with the Governor’s Office to change how his authority functions.

Despite receiving no state money and being funded by Atlantic City’s hotel-room tax, Vasser said the ACCVA would respond to the governor’s vision.

“They reached out to us with a message,” Vasser said. “They told us, ‘Governor Christie wants Atlantic City to succeed,’ and that more marketing and strong marketing is part of that. So I feel good about that. If they’re considering consolidating some, or even eliminating some (authorities), I trust they’re doing it after extensive research.”

Some authorities in southern New Jersey operate under full executive control — even those that receive no state funds.

Dan Douglas, spokesman for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said Friday that the governor currently can veto either the minutes of the CRDA’s meetings or an individual line item expenditure from its $4.8 million budget. “It works out to the same thing — he can veto either way,” Douglas said.

But some hesitate to cheer the possible expansion of executive power in New Jersey, where the governor is already considered one of the most powerful in any state.

“The New Jersey governor has other tools besides wielding an executive hammer,” said Sharon Schulman, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway Township. “The sitting governor can dissolve boards and authorities and bring management back under the umbrella of the executive and legislative branches. Fortunately, this often needs the repeal of existing legislation and/or new legislation, so it is done thoughtfully and with the joint decision of the Legislature. Broadening executive powers too much can lead to autocracy.”

State authorities and what they spend

Below is a sample of area and statewide independent authorities and their budgets.

  • Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority:  $11,011,653
  • Casino Reinvestment Development Authority:  $4.8 million
  • Delaware River and Bay Authority: $76.2 million (2009)
  • Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority: $164 million
  • Port Authority of New York and New Jersey: $6.3 billion
  • Schools Development Authority: $12.5 billion
  • South Jersey Transportation Authority: $91,605,689 (2008)

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