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A Road Toward Redemption for The Pinelands Commission

Reform Faction Must Seize Control of Policy Agenda & Rein In Executive Director’s Power

We make the road by walking. ~~~  Paulo Freire

The Pinelands Commission switched their regular Friday meeting day to Thursday in respect of Good Friday, so lets begin with a Biblical metaphor.

Executive Director Wittenberg is so cynical that she threw her newest professional staffer to the lions, as a tactic to manipulate the Commission and the public.

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki.

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki.

… they deserve the name of faction who conspire to bring odium on good men and virtuous, who cry out against innocent blood, offering as the justification of their enmity the baseless plea, that they think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, “Away with the Christians to the lion!” ~~~ “Apology”, c. 40 ~~~ Tertullian

That’s harsh, so let me explain.

Everyone knows that the most controversial and pressing issues now before the Commission are the destruction of the Pinelands resources by motorized vehicles (not just the “Mudders” and not just in Wharton State Forest), the NJNG and SJG pipelines, and the need to restore the Commission’s independence and integrity (for a sense of that challenge, see the recent Philadelphia Inquirer editorial: “Christie bullied Pinelands panel to get his way”)

For a sense of exactly how current these issues are, last week, BPU issued another approval of the NJNG pipeline and just the day before the Commission’s Thursday meeting DEP issued a major public announcement regarding their plan to address the motorized vehicle issue in Wharton State Forest.

Executive Director Wittenberg and two Commissioners attended the DEP’s March 22 “Stakeholder” meeting where the DEP’s plan was presented.

[*An important aside is necessary here: regular readers will recall that previously, in response to my questions during the March 11 meeting, Ms. Wittenberg stated that the DEP “Stakeholder” meeting was “by invitation only”, that she was representing the Commission, and that the Commissioners who expressed an interest were not invited and could not attend. I was outraged by that, testified calling it “radical”, and later wrote about it.

How is it possible for the DEP to block Pinelands Commissioners from a key meeting regarding the Pinelands?  How can Wittenberg, who reports to and serves at the pleasure of the Commission, defend DEP’s restriction and tell Commissioner that they could not attend?

So obviously, something changed and two Commissioners did in fact attend the DEP meeting.  This may seem a minor victory, but this is exactly how the Commission must claw back its powers from Wittenberg. I’d love to see the last minute revised invitation letters to those Commissioners! And so much for DEP’s bogus restriction in their “by invitation only” letter that “Due to space limitations, only one person per organization can attend.” – Eat those words DEP Commissioner Martin! ~~~ end aside]

Critically, DEP announced at this March 22 meeting that they had abandoned their initial “Motorized Access Plan” (MAP) initiative (which was based on and included a map) and would not be adopting any maps of areas or roads that would be closed to protect environmentally sensitive areas.

DEP’s abdication now makes it absolutely essential that the Pinelands Commission fulfill its responsibilities to designate areas that are not appropriate for motorized vehicles via a CMP amendment adopting a map (for a discussion of those CMP powers and the criteria to define environmentally unsuitable areas, see this February post and this more recent post.)

Stating the obvious: given this context and timing, at a minimum, the DEP’s plan and the Commission’s response should have been front and center on the Thursday meeting agenda.

Yet the Commission’s agenda completely ignored all these issues – and instead, the only substantive “Plan Review recommendation” – lingo for how the staff tee up policy issues and CMP amendments for the Commission’s review and approval – was a briefing by their newest professional staffer on “sign regulation in the Pinelands”

That’s right: signs. The poor staffer did a professional job, but make no mistake: he was thrown to the lions:

Bread and circuses” (or bread and games; from Latinpanem et circenses) is metonymic for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace,[1] as an offered “palliative.”

In a classical diversion, the Commission spent almost an hour discussing signs – while ignoring the motorized access issue and the DEP’s abdication just the day before.

The agenda for the meeting seemed designed to divert and manipulate the Commission and the public and avoid discussing   far more important and controversial issues.

Only after I called them out on the failure to brief the public on the DEP “Stakeholder meeting” did acting Chairman Galletta reluctantly ask Wittenberg to brief the Commissioners and the public about the DEP plan. (Interestingly, new Christie installed Chairman Earlen and his partner Commissioner Avery were absent).

The Commissioners and federal Secretary on Interior representative DiBello responded with an excellent discussion and again indicated a strong and growing desire to provide planning and policy guidance to DEP about where DEP should enforce motorized vehicle access restrictions based on a map adopted by the Commission.

It is now obvious that Wittenberg does not want the Commission involved in motorized vehicle issues in deference to DEP and will do just about anything to throw up roadblocks.

This is just the most recent indications of her unilateral abuse of power, loyalty to Gov. Christie and DEP, and end run around Commission’s policy powers.

That abuse must stop.

But the abuse will end only if and when a majority faction on the Commission emerges and seizes control.

To accomplish real reforms will require confrontation – something many Commissioners are uncomfortable with – and it require Resolutions and Votes by the Commission setting policy. This may even trigger vetoes of the minutes by Governor Christie.

If so, so be it – at least the Commisssion will be on a road to redemption.

As Paulo Freire famously said: “We make the road by walking“.

So here are key first steps on that road this year:

1. Rescind delegation of power to the Executive Director to make unilateral decisions on major issues

2. Impose a moratorium on review of fossil infrastructure until a climate & energy  policy is adopted in the CMP

3. Restrict water use to protect ecosystems – implement the long delayed Kirkwood-Cohansey Study

4. Amend the CMP to adopt a map where motorized vehicles are prohibited

5. Put teeth in the new MOA policy by adopting standards to define equivalent protection – codify in CMP

We’ve previously written about each of those issues, so until we update them with more specific recommendations, readers that are interested in these 5 steps should use the word search function at top right.

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

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