The Christie administration yesterday began its makeover of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council, having three of its nominees approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee despite heated opposition to two of them from several environmental groups.
The approvals, coming late in the afternoon after a day of intense lobbying by the administration, mark the first step in what might be the replacement of 10 of the 15 members of the council by the governor, who has been highly critical of the law creating protections for the New Jersey Highlands.
It was a crushing setback to conservation groups, who fear the governor’s nominees will allow him to dismantle from within controversial aspects of the 2004 law creating the Highlands Council, instead of obtaining the changes he seeks from a Democratic-controlled legislature, a point Gov. Chris Christie has conceded will not occur at town hall meetings.
The 1,343-square-mile region in the northwest part of the state provides drinking water to more than 5 million of the state’s residents. After years of lobbying, New Jersey moved to protect the Highlands (which runs through 90 of the state’s municipalities), dividing it into two sections: roughly 415,000 acres for preservation and 444,000 for a planning area that must conform to the region’s master development plan.
Two of the three nominees were easily approved by the committee, but a third, Robert Walton of Hampton, a Hunterdon County freeholder, won approval by the narrowest of margins and only because two Democratic senators, including Senate President Stephen S. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) voted to send his nomination to the Senate. Sweeney was not there and is not normally a member of the committee, but voted instead of Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who also was not there.
Hampton had generated the most controversy of the three nominees released by the committee, primarily because he was quoted as saying he was "diametrically opposed to the Highlands Act."
Several senators suggested the nomination be held so that the nominee, who was not invited to the hearing, could be interviewed by the panel, but Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the chairman of the committee, said there had been an agreement among the leadership to move the nominations on Thursday. He also said nominees to the council were typically not interviewed by the committee.
That triggered an outburst from Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), who is one of the authors of the Highlands law. "Leadership be damned. We have a responsibility as senators to do the right thing. You are going to appoint someone who is opposed to the law. Do you think that’s good government? I think we’re making a terrible mistake," he said.
Environmentalists agreed. "It’s a dismantling [of the act]," said Elliot Ruga, senior policy advisor for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, which counts more than 50 organizations as members.
Noting the Governor has nominated 10 individuals to fill vacant seats or replace others on the council, David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, called it a "wholesale change in turnover and philosophy" on the council, "aided and abetted’" by the Senate president.
The conservationists also opposed the nomination of James Mengucci of Phillipsburg because he describes himself as a “pro-growth’’ advocate. A couple of senators argued being pro-growth should not disqualify him from serving on the council. A third nominee, Timothy Dougherty of Morristown, encountered no opposition.
The committee delayed acting on the nomination of another nominee, James Rilee of Succasunna, because Smith had requested he be interviewed by the panel before a vote on his nomination. Rilee, who also has been critical of the Highlands Act in his role as deputy mayor in the township of Roxbury, attended the morning session of the committee but left before it reconvened in mid-afternoon.
The vote in the committee ironically came on a day when the legislature’s two environment committees heard an upbeat report from the executive director of the council, Eileen Swann and Byram Township Mayor James Oscovitch on the implementation of the law. "Every single provision of the law is being implemented," Swann said.
But others said the council faces some challenges, including staffing. Its funding has been cut by the Christie administration and it has only 23 fulltime employees, far fewer than were projected to be necessary when the law was passed.