Out of Luck: Still No Hearing for Gov’s Nominees to Highlands and Pinelands Agencies

Tom Johnson | January 8, 2020 | Energy & Environment, Water
Murphy has been trying for close to a year to seat new members on key state planning agencies, but lawmakers have not considered them
Credit: Pinelands Preservation Alliance
Robert Jackson has been nominated by Gov. Phil Murphy to the Pinelands Commission.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s bid to recast the focus of the state’s two most prominent planning agencies, the Pinelands Commission and the New Jersey Highlands Council, appears to have been thwarted — at least for the near-term.

In nominations dating back almost one year, the governor’s choices to fill five spots on the Pinelands Commission and three on the Highlands Council will remain open with the close of the lame-duck legislative session next week.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet tomorrow, but none of the nominees are listed on the agenda. “No, they won’t be considered,’’ said a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, who declined further comment.

The failure to act is deeply disappointing to activists who had lobbied from the beginning of the Murphy administration in 2018 for more environmental advocates to be brought on board the two agencies overseeing development and protection of both the Pinelands and Highlands.

The Pinelands and Highlands are two of New Jersey’s most pristine environmental resources. Not only do they provide drinking water to millions of residents, but they are home, in the case of the Pinelands, to plants not found  anywhere else in the world.

Expressing frustration

“This has been tremendously frustrating,’’ said Elliot Ruga, policy director at the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, one of the groups pressing for changes in the makeup of the Highlands Council.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, blames both the Senate and Governor’s Office for the failure to act. “I blame both sides. I blame (Senate President) Sweeney for not putting the nominations up. I blame the governor for not fighting for his people,’’ he said. “You have a Democratic governor and a Democratic Senate and they can’t get this done.’’

Privately, sources say there are a variety of issues holding up some of the appointments, including with a couple of senators using senatorial courtesy to block some nominees, as well as other issues that have arisen during the process.

Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, noted two of the nominees in the Pinelands, Theresa Lettman and Robert Jackson, have had all senators sign off on them and completed questionnaires. Lettman was nominated almost a year ago.

Lettman, a former trustee of the Natural Lands Trust, was expected to replace Candace McKee Ashmun, an original commissioner on the agency, who has served 40 years. Ashmun, widely regarded as the most respected conservationist by the community, is 95 years old, and participates on the commission via speaker phone during meetings.

Who’s to blame?

“The governor has done his job of nominating individuals,’’ Rhoads said. “It’s the Senate’s responsibility to act … They are not being proper stewards of how the system should work.’’

The Murphy administration declined to assign blame. “The administration and Senate have, working together made significant progress moving gubernatorial appointments through the nomination process,’’ said Alyana Alfaro, Murphy’s press secretary.

Besides Lettman, the Pinelands nominees not likely to be confirmed include Jackson, a former commissioner; Ed Lloyd, a current and long-term commissioner; Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions; and Jessica Rittler Sanchez, a regional planner specializing in water resources and management.

On the Highlands, the nominees included Daniel Van Abs, a Rutgers assistant professor and formerly staff member of the Highlands Council; Bill Kibler, director of policy for the Raritan Headwaters Association; and Wynnie-Fred Victor Haines, co-chair of the Newark Environment Commission.

Ruga said it looks like the governor will have to renominate the proposed appointees, a matter administration officials declined to address.

“In a week from now, we’ll be starting from square one again over this,’’ Tittel said.