Politics Trumps Water Protection In Highlands

March 23, 2012
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By Michele S. Byers

“THURSDAY NIGHT MASSACRE, kangaroo court, gutless, nasty, dirty politics, and Soviet style governance” are just a few of the terms being used to describe the actions of a majority of the New Jersey Highlands Council members this week when they abruptly voted 9 to 5 to remove their highly competent and effective executive director, Eileen Swan, without warning or justification.  Five members of the Council strongly protested the vote. The firing is the boldest salvo to date in what appears to be a concerted effort by the Christie Administration to undo the protections of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, which was adopted in 2004 to secure the water supply for some 6 million people – over two-thirds of the residents of this state were in. The act to protect the Highlands water and other natural and cultural resources was the outcome of nearly 20 years of hard-fought efforts. The importance of the Highlands Region to provide this water was officially recognized over 100 years ago! The act also called for a Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council to create a regional master plan to guide development into appropriate areas and protect the area’s forests, farmland, wildlife, historic sites, recreational opportunities and scenic beauty. The council was established as an independent state agency, with its members appointed by the governor from both political parties, municipal and county government, and citizens. Over the past two years, Governor Christie has filled a majority of council terms, many of them with avowed opponents of the Highlands Act.  And on Thursday night, which also happened to be “the Ides of March,” this majority fired Swan. All of the council members took an oath of office to uphold the Highlands Act. Nearly all the members had, over the past six months, expressed their confidence in the competence of the executive director.  Nevertheless, these council members voted to oust her, clearly demonstrating that they care more about politics than protection of the Highlands and its water supply. Removing the executive director in this manner undermines the integrity of the Highlands Council, and, unfortunately, appears to signal Governor Christie’s intent to dismantle and weaken all Highlands protections. According to Michael Catania, a former deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, “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 6 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 one substantive criticism of her work.

Moments after this dismissal Deputy Director Thomas Borden, who was named acting executive director in the same resolution, calmly submitted his immediate resignation, saying it’s a matter of “conscience.”

In over 30 years of New Jersey’s regional planning history – which includes the establishment of the Pinelands Commission, the Highlands Council, the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission, and the Meadowlands Commission – no agency has handled the removal of their executive staff so poorly.  In fact, some of New Jersey’s regional planning agencies are considered national models of successful land use management.

The time has come to speak up for New Jersey’s long-term water supply!

Please contact Governor Christie and urge him to support the implementation of the current Highlands Regional Master Plan, the strong Highlands rules of the Department of Environmental Protection, and to continue funding the purchase of conservation lands in the Highlands.

To contact the governor, go to http://www.nj.gov/governor/contact to send an email, or telephone the governor’s office at 609-292-6000.

If you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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