The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor has a colorful history. It was created in 1953 to wrest control of New Jersey and New York ports from organized crime. Its efforts inspired the classic film “On The Waterfront,” which the following year won Best Picture and seven other Academy Awards.
There’s no question it was needed 66 years ago in the early days of the Eisenhower administration. Now it’s a wasteful and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy that should be eliminated, according to New Jersey elected officials of both parties.
They tried to do just that, enacting a law requiring New Jersey to withdraw from the bistate commission and hand over its law enforcement duties to the State Police and other agencies. It couldn’t have been more bipartisan — passing the state Senate 38-0 and the Assembly 66-1. Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. Attorney, signed it toward the end of his term and Gov. Phil Murphy sought to carry it out.
But Judge Susan Wigenton of the U.S. District of New Jersey recently ruled in favor of the Waterfront Commission’s lawsuit challenging New Jersey’s right to withdraw from the commission. She said that even though the interstate compact authorizing the commission doesn’t address how a state could withdraw from it, such a withdrawal would need to be approved by lawmakers in both New York and New Jersey, or by an act of Congress.
Former Sen. Raymond Lesniak, the architect of the withdrawal bill, said the commission “has become a typical governmental bureaucracy that overstayed its reason for existence.”
The withdrawal act said the Waterfront Commission “itself has been tainted by corruption in recent years and, moreover, has exercised powers that do not exist within the authorizing compact.” It said the panel overregulates port businesses “in an effort to justify its existence” and is “an impediment to future job growth and prosperity at the port.”
In its lawsuit, the Waterfront Commission, which has its own police force, said it is still needed and pointed to a 2015 investigation that led to the conviction of union officials charged in a shakedown of their own members on behalf of the Genovese crime family.
That just shows that law enforcement is still needed at the port, not what agency should handle it. Of the hundreds of ports in the United States, only the N.J.-N.Y. port has a waterfront commission handling enforcement.
A decade ago, a New York Inspector General’s report called the Waterfront Commission a “sanctuary of political favoritism, corruption and abuse” and said it was rife with internal fraud and abuse, including hiring unqualified but connected police officers and ignoring businesses with criminal ties.
Since the middle of the last century, the waterfront’s commerce has shifted toward New Jersey, whose ports now handle 82% of cargo. That could affect getting New York to agree to dissolve the commission.
Senate President Steve Sweeney wants the state to appeal Wigenton’s decision. He said the “outdated commission” was “doing little more than hindering economic growth and costing us jobs in the state’s shipping industry.”
An appeal makes sense since nothing in the original agreement restricts withdrawal, and the rest of the nation’s ports show that such a commission isn’t needed. If the state can’t prevail on appeal, it will have to rely on the cooperation of New York or Congress to exercise its sovereignty in the matter.
When governmental leaders unanimously decide the bureaucracy needs trimming, they should be encouraged. The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor should be dissolved and remembered for its good work in the mid-20th century. At least it has an excellent movie to help with that.