Posted on March 6, 2023
The state Senate unanimously approved Gov. Phil Murphy’s nominations of two top staffers and Elizabeth’s Democratic mayor to the Port Authority’s commissioner board Monday, giving Murphy more influence over the powerful interstate agency.
Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, Murphy administration chief of staff George Helmy, and deputy chief of staff for economic growth Joe Kelley were approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday morning after a light-hearted hearing with little discussion other than praise for all three men. The full Senate confirmed all three 37-0 later that afternoon.
The Port Authority board of commissioners is composed of 12 people, six each from New Jersey and New York, and nominated by the state’s governors. The board oversees the bi-state agency, which manages six airports, six bridges and tunnels, the PATH system, the Port Authority bus terminal, and the World Trade Center.
All three men were nominated to six-year terms. Bollwage will remain Elizabeth’s mayor, and Helmy and Kelley said they will continue to work for Murphy’s administration.
Helmy touted his experience in infrastructure projects while working with Sen. Cory Booker and the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg. He said he has “significant experience” in managing large projects, vertical construction, and working with state agencies and departments.
Senators complimented Helmy as someone who understands policy and has worked with both sides of the aisle over the last four years as Murphy’s chief of staff.
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said Helmy’s nomination sends a strong message to New York that New Jersey is “taking the Port Authority serious on all of the future infrastructure funding.”
Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union) pressed Helmy on the behavior of TSA agents at Newark airport, who Bramnick said are rude to travelers and ruining the image of New Jersey. Bramnick said that although agents may be overworked, they should be more respectful to people.
The agents are “screaming at the traveling public, as opposed to trying to show some respect as you travel around the country. The public image of New Jersey can be created by a couple bad apples,” Bramnick said. Helmy didn’t respond.
Bollwage noted that as mayor of Elizabeth, he’s helped oversee the Port of Newark, the Goethals Bridge, and terminals of the Newark airport that are in Elizabeth. He said he worked on the port 40 years ago, and he’s familiar with customs and other issues the ports face.
“The Port Authority has a huge influence in our community, both economically and driven by jobs,” he said.
Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) spoke in support of Bollwage, calling him a “good friend” that wants “the people of Elizabeth to have a seat at the table.” He said Bollwage will be a “tremendous asset to the Port Authority.”
“He’s doing it for all the right reasons,” Scutari said.
Kelley, a resident of Hoboken, called his nomination “the honor of a lifetime.” He said his goals would be to enhance the port’s reputation, focus on public safety, and advocate for sustainability and environmental initiatives.
Helmy, who has worked with Murphy’s administration and on the governor’s 2021 reelection bid, will replace Dana Martinotti, whose term on the bi-state agency’s board ended in June. Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth since 1992, will replace Rob Menendez Jr., who left the board after he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November. Kelley will fill a position open since September 2021, when Raymond Pocino retired after 19 years on the board.
Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) supported the three nominations but stressed the need for more diversity “in terms of gender distribution” on high-profile boards. New Jersey’s delegation on the board is largely male.
“Diversity comes in many different ways, and as a woman, I would tell you that’s very important, and as a Latina, I wanted to point that out to you,” she said. “Take that into account.”
Senators pressed the nominees to ensure Port Authority Board Chairman Kevin O’Toole will remain in his position. They all voiced their support and respect for O’Toole, an ex-state senator nominated to the post by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2017.
In a statement, Murphy said his three nominees will stand up for the interests of New Jersey.
“These individuals have dedicated their professional lives to public service and bring decades of experience in urban policy, economic development, and large-scale infrastructure projects. I am confident that they will be assets to the board and the millions of people it serves,” he said.