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Reflections on a Highlands Massacre

Now that the dust has begun to settle and all the press stories and critical editorials have been written, I’d like to reflect briefly on a couple of things.

While I liked Star Ledger columnist Tom Moran’s piece, it was Mike Catania’s historical allusion to the Nixon Administration’s “Saturday Night Massacre” that really captured the essence in terms of what Swan’s firing means for governance going forward.

So, furthering the path Catania began, I will begin, ironically, by reference to the work of John W. Dean, Nixon’s  White House Counsel who some have called the “master manipulator of the Watergate coverup”.

Dean’s 2006 book “Conservatives Without Conscience” is one of the best portraits of what’s gone wrong with the Republican party. And Dean’s framework fits Governor Christie and now Highlands Chairman Rilee to a tee.

Dean traced the evolution of conservatism and warned of what he called “the growing presence of conservative authoritarianism“:

Conservatism has noticeably evolved from its so-called modern phase (1950-94) into what might be called  a post-modern period, and in so doing it has regressed to its earliest authoritarian roots. Authoritarianism is not well understood and seldom discussed in the context of American government and politics, yet it now constitutes the prevailing thinking and behavior among conservatives. Regrettably, empirical studies reveal, however, that authoritarians are frequently enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, antiequality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral. They are also often conservatives without conscience who are capable of plunging this nation into disasters the likes of which we have never known.” (p. xii) [emphases mine]

What better words describe the Swan debacle? “mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral” and “capable of plunging into disasters”

Dean then goes on to discuss psychological perspectives on conservatism and describe a leading academic study on some of the characteristics of conservative authoritarians:

… people become or remain political conservatives because they have a “heightened psychological need to manage uncertainty and threat.” More specifically, the study established that the various psychological factors associated with political conservatives included (and here I am paraphrasing) fear, intolerance of ambiguity, need for certainty or structure in life, overreaction to threats, and a disposition to dominate others. (emphases mine, p. 30)

From a governing standpoint, Chairman Rilee has destroyed his own personal credibility and ability to lead the Council.

Despite the fact that the plan to fire Swan was leaked and reported in the media well before the public hearing (thus giving plenty of time for the Governor’s Office to reconsider and save face), they went forward with it anyway.

Rilee maneuvered behind fellow Council members’ backs, was dishonest during his Senate confirmation, and thereby has made it impossible for anyone to trust him. Ever.

Rilee has destroyed the Council’s independence and shown that it is little more than a pawn of Trenton and Governor Christie.

Rilee has deeply and irrevocably polarized the work of the Council. Conservation groups are on the warpath and the Council’s public perception as a professional regional planning entity and an honest broker has vanished.

Given these circumstances, what kind of planning professional would want to take the Executive Director’s position and replace Swan?

Is the Rilee hand picked new Personnel Committee deluded to think they can conduct a national search and attract a strong candidate?

Rilee has made it virtually impossible to attract a qualified professional replacement.

But, breaking the Council just may have been the Governor’s goal here.

With that in mind, I must note that although Eileen Swan has gotten virtually all of the attention, the resignation of Tom Borden is actually more damaging.

Tom is one of the best environmental lawyers in NJ.

Tom’s disarming smile, personal charm, and self effacing manner may fool some, but behind that wonderful persona rests a superb legal mind that knows how to deploy the levers of power.

Long before Tom joined the Council, he had tremendous accomplishments as a Deputy Attorney General representing DEP. DAG Tom focused primarily on water resource issues, where he worked closely with another virtually anonymous professional named Steve Lubow in crafting and defending NJ’s water quality standards.

After leaving the AG’s Office, few realize that Tom, representing clients in Clinton Township, filed a petition for rule making with DEP Commissioner Shinn seeking to upgrade a stream to Category One as a means to block a development project.

That petition was denied by Shinn, but it later was approved by DEP Commissioner Brad Campbell and became the framework for the hugely successful “Category One” initiative and subsequent 300 foot buffers.

The anti-degradation regulatory policy Tom deployed in the Clinton petition not only drove the C1 program, it became a key part of the framework of the Highlands Act.

Tom has had a huge positive impact on NJ’s environment, so, wherever he goes from here,  I hope he stays engaged.

And last, although I have no evidence to support it, my gut tells me and I can help but sense that the fact that Swan was a strong woman had something to do with this.

Authoritarian men tend to have trouble with strong women.

It will be very difficult for this Council and the new Executive Director and management team to climb out of the hole Governor Christie and Chairman Rilee have dug.

And that is the most disastrous consequence of Swan’s firing.

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  1. scott olson
    March 19th, 2012 at 11:03 | #1

    Speaking of strong women, Tracy Carluccio stood her ground and then some against the “Authoritarian regime” last Thursday night. Kudos to her – a true enviro hero!

    One thing that EVERYONE seems to miss in regard to the Christie administration’s manipulation of the Highlands Council (you came closest to hitting it, Bill) is the fact the if the Governor had his way, the Council would be composed of all middle-aged or older white men. Absolutely NO gender or racial diversity! Nada.

    What’s up with that, Guv?

  1. June 1st, 2014 at 13:56 | #1
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