State senators blast Cuomo for replacing commissioners on state Bridge Authority
HIGHLAND — Republican senators in the Hudson Valley say Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s replacing the entire board of commissioners on the New York State Bridge Authority is a back-door way to getting what he truly wanted: merging that agency with the Thruway Authority.
At least one Democrat said she will be keeping an eye on the new appointees to make sure they are independent voices.
Cuomo earlier this month nominated five new commissioners to replace those who were still serving out time on their terms, and the Senate confirmed them, along with filling two vacancies on the seven-member board.
The terms of the five sitting commissioners were due to expire between next year and 2023.
The Authority owns and maintains five bridges that cross the Hudson River: the Newburgh-Beacon, Bear Mountain, Mid-Hudson, Kingston-Rhinecliff and Rip Van Winkle bridges, along with the Walkway Over the Hudson, which is on a former railroad bridge between Highland and Poughkeepsie.
The Senate was required to confirm the commissioners’ appointments.
Sen. Sue Serino, R-Hyde Park, Dutchess County, said it was wrong for Cuomo to drop the sitting commissioners with no explanation.
“This certainly looks like a de facto takeover of the Bridge Authority to me, and I am totally opposed to the way the board members were replaced,” Serino said in a statement.
Serino said she voted against all of the seven appointees, except Michael O’Brien from Dutchess County. Her spokeswoman said Serino felt it was important to have a local voice on the panel, filling one of the vacant positions.
Cuomo’s senior advisor Rich Azzopardi defended the changes, writing Friday on Twitter: “Sorry folks this is no one’s clubhouse.”
Those ousted were chairman Richard Gerentine, a former Ulster County legislator; vice chairman Roger Higgins and Diane Jablonski, both from Dutchess County; Roderick Dressel of Ulster County; and Henry Stanton of Westchester County.
Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, Saratoga County, whose district includes all of Columbia County, where the Rip Van Winkle Bridge has its eastern terminus, called the governor’s action a “back-door attempt to ultimately try and merge” the bridge and Thruway authorities.
She opposed that merger when it came up for debate during the budget process earlier this year, saying it would be “bad for motorists, bad for business, bad for tourism and bad for the Hudson Valley.”
She and others who opposed the merger feared that tolls on the bridges would be increased to support Thruway construction projects.
While the final budget adopted by lawmakers in April did not allow Cuomo to merge the two authorities, it did include language allowing him to replace the Bridge Authority commissioners.
And that’s exactly what Cuomo did when the state Legislature returned to Albany for a weeklong session earlier this month. The Democratic-led Senate confirmed his appointments.
Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, Ulster County, said it was important to make sure Cuomo’s appointees were independent-minded thinkers, and not “yes men and women,” and Sen. James Skoufis, D-Cornwall agreed with her.
“Sen. Skoufis and I insisted that (the nominees) be interviewed by the Senate Finance Committee before the vote, even though that was not required,” Metzger said.
Metzger said she was satisfied with most nominees, but voted against two, whom she did not name.
“We’ll be closely watching this new board’s work to make sure the Bridge Authority’s integrity remains intact,” Metzger said.
Besides O’Brien, the new members are Maria Bruni, Middletown’s community development director; Colin Jarvis, executive director of the Newburgh Ministry; Lou Lanza, a Garrison restaurant owner; Joan McDonald of Mahopac, director of operations for the Westchester County Executive’s office; former Yorktown supervisor Ilan Gibert; and Alex Berardi of Ulster County, president of Trailways.com.