The dust and the finger-pointing are beginning to settle at the South Jersey Economic Development District.

Gordon Dahl - the executive director who oversaw the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt as the SJEDD built the infrastructure for the Next Generation Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township, who closed off an access road at the site in a dispute with Atlantic County and whose salary increased by 40 percent between 2006 and 2011 - is out.

A new interim executive director, retiring Cape May County Administrator Steve O'Connor, has been hired, at a salary of $9,500 per month.

And everyone involved is trying to sell the message that the district's problems - a failure to conduct timely audits, missing minutes of meetings, expenditures made without the knowledge or approval of the board - are over.

But let's get real. The SJEDD's failings were not the fault of one person. They were the fault of a supervisory structure that was simply inadequate to oversee the role the agency took on when it became the leaseholder of the NextGen site.

And the public officials who represented Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties on the district board should have known that.

Instead, the problems at the NextGen site have endangered a project that could bring jobs and a new industry to southern New Jersey.

The SJEDD is the only economic development district in New Jersey, but there are hundreds of such districts throughout the country. Its purpose, when in was formed in 1979, was to secure grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

As long as the SJEDD acted as a conduit for grants, it worked pretty well. Member counties could split the expense of grant application, and when a county needed federal money to build a road or a building, the district often came through. Board members say Dahl brought in $63 million in grants during one 10-year period.

But that all changed when the district took on the job of developing the NextGen park.

The member counties should have seen that a board with rotating membership that meets four times a year could not possibly be adequate to supervise efforts as the three-person staff of the district took the lead in developing the research park.

Freeholders in Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties - the remaining members of the district after Atlantic County pulled out in January - have passed resolutions saying the district should be disbanded if it is not financially viable by mid-June. Even if its finances can be untangled, the question remains whether there is any reason for the SJEDD to exist.

At the very least, the district needs to get back to its original mission of securing grant money.

And the member counties must take their role of supervising the district's activities much more seriously. The stakes - in public funds and in lost opportunities - are too high to do otherwise.


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