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Holdovers on NJ Highlands Council Shape Policy Even After Their Terms Are Up

As council prepares to review and revise Regional Master Plan, all members are holdovers

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The New Jersey Highlands Council is one of the most visible and controversial of several hundred state boards and commissions, yet all 14 members are holdovers -- members who are serving beyond their terms. While holdovers are commonplace on many New Jersey boards, the clean sweep on the Highlands Council is unusual.

The council implements the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, a 2004 law criticized by many Republicans, including Gov. Chris Christie, for limiting development in an 860,000-acre region.

This is an especially crucial year for the council. It is readying an update to a 464-page Regional Master Plan that will offer additional guidance on building in a region that ranges from the New York border in Bergen County to the Delaware River in Hunterdon County.

Given the stakes, it is noteworthy that everyone on the council -- including original member Tracy Carluccio and eight Gov. Chris Christie picks -- is a holdover.

In theory, all could be replaced at any time. But most observers believe it is unlikely Christie will decide to name anyone else to the board for several reasons: any replacements would have to go through a process that requires the approval of state Senate Democrats; his appointments already hold a majority on the council; and he doesn’t want to be seen as having much to do with the council itself.

The reliance on holdovers did not start with the Highlands Council, however, nor with Christie.

A 2004 study by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, based on questionnaires returned by 261 of 400 state boards and commissions in New Jersey, found holdovers in 22 percent of seats. Fourteen percent were vacant.

When Christie took office in January 2010, four of the 15 seats on the Highlands Council were vacant and another six were held by holdovers.

Under the Highlands Act, the governor nominates all council members, with two at the recommendation of the Senate president and Assembly speaker. Council members are unpaid.

Christie nominated 10 to the council early in his first term. All but one was confirmed by the Senate.

Hunterdon County Freeholder Robert Walton, a Christie choice whose term expired in January, was the final addition to the holdover list.

Former Lopatcong Councilman James Mengucci, a Christie pick, resigned in 2013 and has not been replaced.

No nominations to the Highlands Council are pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the office of Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-22), the committee’s chair.

The holdover trend, on the Highlands Council and elsewhere, concerns John Weingart -- the Highlands Council’s first chair and associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

“There are a number of small indignities, mostly small, in the way in which members of boards and commissions are treated. This is one,” said Weingart, author of the 2004 study.

Weingart departed the Highlands Council when his term ended in 2009.

While holdovers have the same authority as they did during their terms, Weingart said they exist under a "different dynamic" and may be perceived as less consequential.

“The staff doesn’t know how long they’re going to be there,” Weingart said.

Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, is a frequent dissenter from the council majority.

“I have all the same responsibilities, all the same votes, like everyone else. The downside is you never know if you’re going to be replaced at any moment,” Carluccio said.

Asked about holdovers, New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel asserted they are more vulnerable due to the possibility of being replaced at any time, and therefore more likely to be influenced by the governor.

“People who serve on boards want to be there. They don’t want to be removed,” Tittel said.

“If they have a term,” Tittel said, “they can feel more relaxed and vote their conscience.”

Tittel drew a parallel from the Regional Master Plan update to a different board and the tree-clearing controversy at Bull’s Island Recreation Area.

In September 2012, with the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission raising objections to cutting the trees, Christie moved to replace the four commission members, all holdovers, and fill their seats.

Christie did not give a reason, but environmentalists charged that swaying the outcome was his motive.

Tittel said the remade commission, more than a year later, ended up rejecting the tree-clearing plan anyway. He questioned whether a similar power play might occur on the Highlands Council, depending on how the Regional Master Plan discussion evolves.

Christie, he noted, “can replace anybody.”

Christie’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The Highlands Act was modeled in part on the 1979 Pinelands Protection Act.

On the Pinelands Commission, 11 of 15 seats are held by holdovers, including the seven subject to nomination by Christie. Christie’s nomination of Robert Barr to the commission was confirmed Monday after months of controversy. He replaced Robert Jackson, a holdover.

Certainly, in the case of many boards, including the Highlands Council, it is not always easy finding candidates. The Highlands Act established very specific parameters.

For example, to replace Mengucci, Christie would have to recruit another Democratic elected official in Republican-dominated Warren County, due to the law’s stipulation on geographical and political balance.

Any nominees would likely face lengthy confirmation battles in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

It is presumably less troublesome for Christie to leave in place Council Chair Jim Rilee, one of his picks, rather than nominating Rilee for another term and facing a confirmation battle in the Senate.

The term of Rilee, mayor of Roxbury, ended in January 2014. He did not return a phone call.

The Highlands Council is meeting Thursday for the first time in two months.

Highlands Council member Michael Sebetich was seated December 2011, 13 months after being nominated by Christie as one of four “public members.”

The term for Sebetich, a retired William Paterson University professor, ended in October. He speculated that the full slate of holdovers is due to an “oversight.”

“I don’t know anybody who plans to leave the council. My guess is all the members who are on the council plan to remain,” Sebetich said.

The possibility of being removed has never deterred Carluccio.

At meeting after meeting, Carluccio -- one of two remaining original members and a holdover since 2008 -- has sparred with Rilee and others on a wide range of issues.

In October, when the council voted 11-1 to name Margaret Nordstrom executive director, Carluccio cast the lone “no” vote.

Carluccio, like Sebetich, is a public member, defined in the law as property owners, business owners, or farmers in the Highlands Region, or nonresidents who either benefit from or consume water from the Highlands Region.

She was spared in 2011 when the Senate Judiciary Committee blocked one of Christie’s nominees.

Holdover or not, Carluccio said her advocacy will remain strong.

“I’m all in until I’m all out,” she said.

Rob Jennings is a journalist covering politics and government in New Jersey.

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