Gov. Chris Christie very quietly this week named Dianne Solomon, the wife of the former president of the state Board of Public Utilities, to take over the top position at the regulatory agency that decides how much consumers pay on their electricity, gas, water, and other utility bills.
Who would replace Bob Hanna, the president who succeeded Lee Solomon, his predecessor and the husband of the new president, has been a topic of much speculation in recent days among the lawyers, lobbyists and others who closely follow the workings of the agency. Hanna was confirmed as a judge in the Superior Court earlier this week.
Few, if any, knew the decision already had been made, if not publicized.
Solomon’s appointment as president was noted on an obscure part of the BPU’s website late yesterday, the day after Christie named her to the position. No press announcement was made of the decision, as is typical with such appointments. The governor ’s press office did not return a call yesterday about the appointment.
Her initial nomination last June to the agency that decides how billions of dollars are invested by state utilities in their infrastructure also raised eyebrows among energy lobbyists. Her background included little experience in energy matters. It reinforced a perception that the agency is a lucrative and safe haven for well-connected political insiders.
Her selection puts her at the head of an agency facing enormous challenges –ranging from deciding how utilities should invest in their infrastructure to prevent the widespread power outages that occurred during Hurricane Sandy and how much the utilities should recover for restoring power during other extreme storms. The agency is also responsible for implementing and regulating all alternative energy initiatives in the state, such as solar and wind, as well as energy-efficiency programs.
Yet at the same time, critics say the same choice ensures that the president of the BPU is a confirmed loyalist to the Christie administration’s policies, which they argue frustrate efforts to develop cleaner sources of energy. Clean energy advocates believe these programs have been harmed by the actions – or inaction – of the Christie administration.
“They decided to choose someone who follow orders from the front office as opposed to a background in utility law and energy,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “I think it underscores how little the Christie administration cares about the BPU.’’
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, concurred. “The reality is this administration has not proven they can move forward on clean energy projects, like offshore wind,’’ he said.
Others had a different view.
“I am very pleased with the choice,’’ said Steven Goldenberg, a lawyer who represents large manufacturers who use a lot of energy. “I’m happy that another Solomon takes the helm.’’
Lee Solomon, who moved on to be a judge on the Superior Court, was a forceful advocate of new power plant development in the state, a strategy that has yielded mixed results so far.
Diane Solomon’s appointment, however, may raise concerns at Wall Street.
“I don’t think her policy objectives are well known to investors at this time,’’ said Paul Patterson, an energy analyst with Glenrock Associates in New York City.
Since joining the commission in June 2103, Solomon has talked relatively little on issues that have come up before the agency in its monthly meetings.
Prior to her nomination, Solomon served as commissioner with the South Jersey Transportation Authority. A resident of Haddonfield, where she lives with her husband and their three children, she also was an official with the United States Tennis Association.