‘Credibility issue’: Zoffinger, longtime power broker, says EDA upheaval puts N.J. in bad light — one it caused itself

By Tom Bergeron
Trenton | Apr 26, 2019 at 2:51 pm
Editor’s Desk

George Zoffinger has served on approximately a dozen boards across the state — and across the globe.

He’s overseen the Economic Development Authority and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority — and he’s the current chairman of the New Brunswick Economic Development Corp.

He’s worked — in some capacity — for every New Jersey governor since Jim Florio, who appointed him commissioner of commerce and economic development.

So, he knows a thing or two about how agencies and government are supposed to operate. And he’s not happy about what he sees going on in connection with the EDA.

“It pains me to see what has happened at that organization,” he told ROI-NJ.

Zoffinger is talking about Chairman Larry Downes stepping down at the request of Gov. Phil Murphy — a request other members of the EDA who were appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie have not complied with so far.

He’s talking about a scathing audit — the parameters of which have been called into question.

He’s talking about the efforts of outside groups calling for a complete overhaul of the EDA for reasons some feel are based more on politics than performance.

“It’s not necessary, I guess is the way I would put it,” Zoffinger said. “We’ve had so many good people that have dedicated their life to it and have done some really positive things for the economic development of the state.

“And, now, because people didn’t agree with some of the things that were done during the Christie years, they’re basically throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

Zoffinger was on a roll.

“I know Larry Downes very well,” he said. “I’ve worked with Larry. I’ve been on the board of New Jersey Natural Gas for 20 years. I’ve seen him. And I know the kind of person he is. And all Larry wanted to do is to make a positive contribution, and he’s done that.

“To make him a scapegoat because you don’t agree with some of the policies that were undertaken at the time, in my opinion, is really wrong. So, it’s really pretty bad to see what’s happening there.”

Zoffinger did offer some praise for Kevin Quinn, who was named to replace Downes on Friday morning.

Quinn is the founder of the Genki Advisory investment firm in Short Hills and, like Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive.

“It could be a good first step,” Zoffinger said. “He seems to be a qualified guy.

“As long as the turmoil doesn’t continue, I think it’s a positive thing. But if they’re going to fight over the four board members, then that will be the focus of the place. They won’t be focusing on what they should be focusing on, which is economic development.”

Regardless of what happens going forward, Zoffinger knows it won’t go perfectly. He’s been around the block enough times to know that no agency is like that.

But, he said he has confidence in the EDA. He said he’s never lost it.

“You’re always going to have situations where people try to game the system,” he said. “You’re always going to have that. But in the case of the EDA, over the years, to my knowledge, it’s always been very difficult to game the system. They basically have so much backup, not only the paperwork, but the constant scrutiny they are under.”

Zoffinger said the problem is an age-old one in the state.

Because the governor — whoever it is — has so much power, few people are willing to challenge the office, he said.

“The governor’s position is so strong, people will not buck it,” he said. “They won’t fight against it. If the governor’s position is to do just about anything — we gave away Giants Stadium (when I was at the sports authority) because the governor wanted to do it.

“People in New Jersey have this aversion to bucking what most governors say. It’s really sad, because some really good people maybe could have made some of the policies (better), but we don’t do that in New Jersey.”

This will lead to a bigger problem, Zoffinger said.

How many others will want to serve the state?

“They’re going to ask, ‘What’s going to happen when somebody else comes along and they don’t like them because Murphy appointed them,’” he said. “We’re going to throw them out for no reason — or because some conservative groups or some liberal groups or some other groups say that they should?

“When people say, ‘We’ve got to get rid of all these people,’ what do they mean get by, ‘these people’? These are people. You got to look at the person and see what’s this person all about.”

Why would people — or, more importantly, big companies — want to settle here? And who is going to help them?

“Larry is a really good guy who brought real stability to that organization,” Zoffinger said. “Now you put the whole organization into an upheaval.

“Now, what’s going to get done while these people fight over whether they’re going or staying, right? I would say, ‘Nothing.’”

Zoffinger said it’s necessary for the state to clean up the mess. He hopes Quinn can do that.

“You have to make sure that people understand their responsibilities and you have to stop the personal attacks and the rancor that seems to be around the organization,” he said. “Because, if you don’t, they will never be able to have the credibility necessary to be able to do that job.

“That’s really what it comes down to. There’s a credibility issue right now that has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed by competent people. Hopefully, some stability or some kind of positive reaction will take place instead of fighting.

“So, if a company wants to come to New Jersey, they know that they could deal with the people that are there versus people that have been asked to leave.”

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