Speculation ran rampant that former Board of Public Utilities President Lee Solomon would get a seat on the New Jersey Supreme Court. It never happened. But his wife did get a nomination — to fill a $140,000 vacancy at the agency her husband once led.
In a press release issued without any fanfare, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday announced he is nominating Dianne Solomon to fill an open spot among the five commissioners of the agency, which regulates electric, gas, water, and other monopolies in the state.
Solomon, a Haddonfield resident, is an official with the United States Tennis Association. She would fill the position that opened up when former commissioner Nicholas Asselta left the agency to take a job with Aqua America, a water utility that operates in New Jersey and other states and is regulated by the BPU. Solomon also is a member of the South Jersey Transportation Authority, a post she has held for the past two years.
Solomon’s nomination spurred criticism from clean energy advocates and raised eyebrows among energy lobbyists who deal with the agency, although the latter declined to comment on the record. It also reinforces a perception among some that the agency is a lucrative and safe haven for politically connected insiders. Three of the four current commissioners all have political backgrounds, the lone exception being Bob Hanna, who succeeded Lee Solomon. Asselta was a former assemblyman and senator in the Legislature.
“Wow, what’s her qualifications?’’ asked Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a frequent critic of the agency. “I’m really concerned that the BPU, instead of bringing in people with energy expertise, is more concerned about their loyalty to the governor.’’
David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, agreed.
“At first blush, it doesn’t pass the straight-faced test,’’ said Pringle, who added he is withholding final judgment. “There are certainly a lot of capable people who could serve on the BPU without tapping the Solomon family.’’
The governor’s office issued a statement explaining why he nominated her.
“Dianne Solomon has had a very good record of dealing with complex funding transportation and infrastructure issues at the South Jersey Transportation Authority, as well as tourism services during our focus on Atlantic City,’’ said Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary. “The governor believes she would be an excellent and dedicated addition at the BPU.’’
Efforts to contact Solomon through the BPU were unsuccessful.
Superior Court Judge Lee Solomon is a close ally of Christie; he served as a U.S. attorney in Camden at the same time the Governor was a U.S. Attorney in Newark. A press report last July suggested he would be nominated for the New Jersey
Supreme Court. Instead, the nomination went to Hanna. It is yet to be acted on by the state Legislature.
For the BPU, the latest nomination comes at a particularly critical juncture. The agency is almost universally regarded as slow-footed when it comes to making decisions. The commissioners face enormous challenges, including how to make the state’s power grid more resilient in the wake of extreme storms, like Hurricane Sandy, an effort one utility suggested could cost more than $4 billion.
The agency also is wrestling with how to achieve the state’s aggressive goals to reduce energy use and promote renewable energy when its clean energy program has been repeatedly raided by both the Legislature and the Christie administration to balance state budgets in recent years. All told, more than $800 million will have been diverted if a proposed appropriation of $151 million for the Christie budget is OK’d by lawmakers.
In addition, the BPU is in the midst of two base-rate cases for two of the four electric utilities, including a contentious litigation involving Jersey Central Power & Light, in which the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel contends the utility has been earning more than it should, a cost that ends up being borne by their 1 million customers.