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Swan Song For the Highlands

Governor Christie’s Puppets Fire Highlands Council Director

Eileen Swan, Executive Director, NJ Highlands Council speaks after firing

Eileen Swan, Executive Director, NJ Highlands Council speaks after firing

[Update 3 – 3/18/12 – Tom Moran at the Star Ledger nails it: The Highlands Council’s Dirty Shame]

Update 2 below]

Update 1 : Mike Catania has a superb Op-Ed at NJ Spotlight, highly recommended:(hit link)  “The Thursday Night Massacre – Gov. Christie makes his move to undo the Highlands Act“- end update]

Eileen Swan, Executive Director of the NJ Highlands Council since 2007 – despite glowing praise from virtually all quarters for her effective performance as Executive Director – nonetheless was fired tonight by a shameful 9-5 vote of Governor Christie’s political hacks.

Immediately following the vote, Tom Borden, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel to the Council, resigned in protest, unable to continue in that role “in good conscience” he said.

It has been obvious from the outset – even before Governor Christie was sworn into office – that the Governor is hell bent on gutting the Act and promoting development that is inconsistent with the Act.

His Transition Reports, Red Tape Reports, Executive Orders, Highlands Council appointments, and public statements have provided a steady drumbeat of attacks on the Act and the Regional Master Plan.

Tonight, the public testimony supporting Swan was some of the harshest I’ve ever witnessed. Here’s a taste:

  • “This is a shameful day”, Julia Sommers, Highlands Coalition
  • “Politics ruled this decision”, former Council member Kovachs
  • “This is a test of the Council’s independence and integrity”, Wilma Frey, NJ Conservation Foundation
  • “This is a sad day for the Highlands” Kate Millsaps, Sierra Club
  • “Anyone who tells you that the Highlands Act can not accommodate economic growth is lying” Scott Olson, Deputy Mayor, Byram Township
  • “Eileen is not the problem. Removing an effective leader is not an honest approach”, Michele Byers, NJ Conservation Foundation
  • “This is the most gutless move I’ve seen in my 37 years of government service. It would compromise the integrity, ethics, and conscience of the Council. It is unconscionable.”, Council member Dressler
  • “This is the death knell for the Council and the Master Plan” Councilman Dressler
  • “A national model of regional land use management is being replaced by a national disgrace.” Tracy Carlucchio, Council member
  • “I object to the Governor’s office forcing this vote. This is dirty politics. I don’t like it and it is not good for the people of NJ” Council member Sebetich
  • “Eileen Swan has more integrity than anyone up here. This is nasty, dirty politics.” Councilman Richco
  • “The lack of transparency and political intervention by the Governor is redolent of Soviet style governance” Bill Wolfe (see the Morris Daily Record story)

The vote was expected, coming after days of media coverage and extremely harsh editorial criticism of the Governor’s strong armed tactics and the Council’s lack of a backbone.

Today’s Star Ledger editorial nailed it:

N.J. Gov. Chris Christie moves to fire a Highlands Council director he can’t control

Give Gov. Chris Christie this much: He has been clear from the start that he is hostile toward the Highlands Act.

But he can’t kill it outright, because Democrats in the Legislature won’t let him. So he is doing it by stealth, appointing council members who have stated explicitly that they oppose the law they are charged to enforce.

Now, the fight is taking an ugly new turn. Eileen Swan, a voice of reason in the battle between preservation and development, is likely to be fired today as the council’s executive director, at the governor’s request. […]

The Highlands Act is probably the single most important piece of environmental legislation to pass during the past decade. It limits development in nearly 1 million acres of land across the northern part of the state, protecting the water supply to 5 million people.

If the governor doesn’t like the law, he should propose changes. To sabotage its enforcement by firing someone with Swan’s energy and integrity is simply wrong.

Let’s repeat that: simply wrong. Period.

I testified in opposition to the move, noting that such vote would destroy the independence and integrity of the Council, and set a horrible precedent for politicization of professional positions.

The move to fire Swan was shamefully engineered by the Governor’s Office, acting through Christie’s loyal appointed lapdog Highlands Council Chairman James Rille.

Christie puppet, Highlands Council Chairman Rilee

Christie puppet, Highlands Council Chairman Rilee

At Rilee’s Senate confirmation hearing, I questioned Rilee’s veracity and integrity – his behavior tonight confirmed those criticisms.

Rilee responded to questions by Councilman Dressler asking why Swan was being fired. Rilee said he was involved and had problems with Swan BEFORE he joined the Council.

Of course, Rilee didn’t say that at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing. Because he swore an oath to tell the whole truth, he misled the Committee and was confirmed under false pretenses.

I’ll provide the media coverage tomorrow – too tired to finish this post tonight.

But the bottom line is that Governor Christie’s bullying style, his abuse of Executive power, and the worst kind of partisan patronage hack politics prevailed over protection of the water supply of 5 million people, the integrity of the Council and the Regional Master Plan, and longstanding norms of professionalism and the larger public interest.

And that is truly shameful.

[Update: I need to make a few political points clear.

Chairman Rilee and Governor Christie’s other appointments of opponents of the Highlands Act would NOT have happened without the support of Democratic Senate President Sweeney.

Obviously, Sweeney cut some sort of dirty political deal with Christie to support his slate of nominees in exchange for god knows what. Sweeney then muscled the Judiciary Committee to approve Christie’s clearly unqualified and hostile nominees.

This is Dirty NJ politics, at its worst.

Council members swore an oath to implement the Highlands Act, not a loyalty oath to Governor Christie.

And while we are on the topic of Democrats, I also must note that Corzine shares some responsibility for this debacle as well.

Vice Chairman and "farmer" Kurt Alstead

Vice Chairman and “farmer” Kurt Alstede

His installment of Adam Zellner as the Council’s Executive Director allowed current Vice Chairman Kurt Alstede last night to correctly say that the Director’s position always was political.

There is a huge difference, however, when a political appointee is installed to dismantle the Act, instead of enforce it. Zellner was NOT there to dismantle the Act – but Christie’s guy will be.

Which leads to my final point.

As I testified last night, the Highlands Act mandates that the Executive Director:

“shall be a person qualified by training and experience to perform the duties of the office”

That’s the standard that Swan’s replacement must meet. We will be watching.

[Note – speaking of watching, Eliot Ruga filmed the complete hearing – you can watch it here.]

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  1. scott olson
    March 15th, 2012 at 21:58 | #1

    Calling Jim Rilee a puppet is an insult to puppets everywhere!

  2. Tony O’Donnell
    March 16th, 2012 at 08:06 | #2

    Absolutely disgusting! I know Eileen Swan and have seen her work in the Highlands. We presented together at the ANJEC environmental congress event three years ago, and she is tremendous.

    Once again, our Governor has displayed his utter disregard for the law. Instead of trying to try to change a law he doesn’t like (the Highlands Act) by working with the legislature, he has taken the coward’s way out by bullying members of the Council to fire Ms. Swan. I am happy to see that five members of the Council voted against this blatant power play, and the public statements of Mr. Dressler in particular were eloquent and spot on accurate.

    If New Jersey voters reelect Christie in 2013, they will be endorsing his complete dismantling of the environmental safeguards in our state.

  3. March 16th, 2012 at 12:31 | #3

    Eileen Swan was a true professional. I am truly worried and this is just another horrible move for our environment! OMG, what will happen to us???

  4. March 16th, 2012 at 12:39 | #4

    I am sick about the Bully in the State House. I have had the pleasure of working Eileen Swan Just a Great Person………

  5. March 16th, 2012 at 12:57 | #5

    What will our future hold if something does not change now? DEMOCRACY a very important word and to me it seems like we are in jeopardy here in NJ!

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