Opinion: The Thursday Night Massacre

Gov. Christie makes his move to undo the Highlands Act

Just when I thought I had seen everything in New Jersey politics, last evening I witnessed an unprecedented coup d’etat, which took place at a regular meeting of the Highlands Council. Under the guise of an innocent-sounding resolution labeled “Position of Executive Director,” new council members appointed by the governor voted to fire Executive Director Eileen Swan.

The firing came after literally hours of testimony strongly supporting Swan from a wide variety of representatives of the environmental community, elected officials, and even former council members. Swan was hailed as an extraordinary and exemplary manager and leader who worked well with local officials, motivated her staff, and successfully guided the council in its efforts to adopt a landmark regional master plan for an area that provides drinking water to almost 5 million New Jersey residents.

Despite this overwhelming support — as well as the vociferous opposition from a handful of its own members — the new Christie council majority flexed its muscle and, citing the “need to make a change,” unceremoniously dumped its executive director of five years without so much as a substantive criticism of her work.

Moments after this dismissal, Deputy Director Thomas Borden (who was named acting executive director in the same resolution ousting Swan), calmly submitted his immediate resignation in a scene reminiscent of the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” when both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus defied the Nixon White house and resigned rather than fire special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Christie’s fingerprints are all over this misadventure. While no one can dispute the council’s right to hire and fire its own executive director, the mob-like manner in which this firing was done just reinforces the negative Jersey backroom political deal stereotype, and one has to believe that this is all likely to come back to haunt the governor.

The Governor and his appointees made the mistake of making a martyr out of Swan, who calmly and professionally did her job right up to the very end, even offering gracious comments after the vote was taken. The juxtaposition between her serene demeanor and the defensive body language and hollow comments of her accusers left absolutely no doubt to the assembled crowd that this was equal parts kangaroo court and lynch mob. Amazingly, it even turned out that Swan and Borden had been asked to advise the council majority on the proper procedure they needed to follow to accomplish the firing.

Just what the governor hopes to accomplish remains unclear, but it is very obvious that the offensive has just begun. Council Chair Jim Rilee also appointed a new personnel committee charged with hiring a new executive director, and, despite protests, pointedly removed supporters of the Highlands Act from that body.

Amazingly, several council members and the few member of the public who supported Swan’s firing claimed that she was somehow responsible for denying landowners just compensation for their diminished property values as a result of highlands rules — a claim that the courts have already dismissed. Who will they blame now that Swan is gone?

Impressively, however, not everyone rolled over before the Christie juggernaut. Several courageous members spoke truth to power and called the move what it really was — the beginning of a concerted effort by the governor to gut the Highlands Act. In particular, although he noted early in his comments that there were definitely no chapters in Profiles in Courage being written that evening, Judge Michael Dressler, speaking eloquently from his wheelchair, then proceeded to write such a chapter. He fiercely challenged the majority, cross-examined the chairman about why and how this action had come about, and closed with a warning that council members were exposing themselves to personal liability for operating outside the law.

Judge Dressler’s comments were echoed by council members Tracy Carluccio, Michael Sebetich, and Carl Richko, who expressed their unqualified support for Swan, noted that the council’s action turned a national model into a national disgrace, urged their outgoing executive director to hold her head high, and termed her ouster as “nasty, dirty politics.”

So, in many ways, the evening was as good a microcosm of both the very worst and the very best of politics, Jersey style, as you could possibly hope (or dread) to see.

Time will tell if the Governor has overplayed his hand. While removing Swan will likely further endear him to the right wing of his party and stoke his obvious national political ambitions, there is that troubling reality that New Jersey’s water supply actually does need protecting. And that New Jerseyans have a funny habit of taking their environment — particularly their water — very seriously. Not to mention the fact that last night’s battle was obviously the beginning of a genuine war about rolling back the Highlands Act, and the administration may have its hands very full defending those actions in state and federal courts. Given the governor’s recent abysmal track record before the very judiciary he has decried as too activist and out of touch, I doubt that the smart money will go with his chances of having some of his more egregious actions upheld by those same judges.

Legislative response was swift and damning. Assemblyman John McKeon, a prime sponsor of the Highlands Act, noted that “in the more than seven-year history of the Highlands Act, no one has done more to bring the benefits of this critical program to fruition than Eileen Swan.” Judicial and voter response may, however, take a bit longer.

Eileen Swan was fired last night for essentially doing her job being a leader in implementing the Highlands Act, which was duly enacted into law by the legislature and a previous governor. Chris Christie, despite his bluster, took an oath to faithfully execute the laws of the State of New Jersey, even the ones he might disagree with. One has to wonder if the right person got fired last night.