Home > Uncategorized > Gov. Murphy’s Highlands Council Nomination Announcement Hits A New Low In Cynical Diversions

Gov. Murphy’s Highlands Council Nomination Announcement Hits A New Low In Cynical Diversions

Timed To Change The Subject And Garner Green Praise

Murphy Yet To Secure Senate Confirmation of Pinelands Nominees

A few blunt thoughts on Gov. Murphy’s nominations to the Highlands Council.

First for some context.

The Governor’s move comes at a time when his administration is under severe criticism for missteps on various environmental crises, including: the Newark lead scandal; the toxic algae bloom; failure to make real progress on seriously tackling climate change, failure to regulate GHG emissions or secure real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and failure to reject numerous pending fossil infrastructure pipelines and power plants (as environmentalists continue to ramp up their demand that the Gov. impose  a moratorium on new fossil infrastructure).

The Governor has been in office for nearly 2 years, during which time he failed to nominate Highlands Council members. He has been criticized for that failure. So, why make that move now? (see our recommended appointments, none of which have made Murphy’s grade).

The Murphy DEP has not restored Highlands regulatory rollbacks by Gov. Christie’s DEP, or terminated controversial Christie DEP logging projects in Highlands forests. The Murphy administration has not engaged any new policy initiatives to strengthen and improve land use and water resource protections in the Highlands. Murphy’s appointment of longtime democratic political operative Lisa Plevin as Executive Director – a trusted loyal ally, not an independent credentialed professional – was not based on a national search for a professional regional planning leader. (Among many other things, I was in the room when Lisa Plevin strong armed the people of Pompton Lakes on behalf of her boss, Judy Enck, EPA Region 2 Administrator – it was a shameful disgrace).

And check out the background on the Highlands Council’s new Chief Legal Counsel:

Prior to joining the Highlands Council, LaRocca spent more than a decade providing in-house legal counsel on all aspects of environmental and safety compliance for a Fortune 500 consumer products company. Her experience also includes work with two of New Jersey’s top law firms, focusing on environmental and real estate matters.

This appointment is a far cry from Tom Borden, who resigned in protest under the Christie regime!

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.

So, the Gov.’s commitment to the Highlands is, at the very best, highly questionable.

The Gov.’s nominees have been praised by his band of green cheerleaders and sycophants,, including the NJ LCV, Clean Water Action and the Highlands Coalition.

The operative political and media dynamics are no different than when Trump, facing criticism, diverts the press and feeds his base – of climate deniers, religious zealots, the NRA or White Power racist – and garners praise for some twisted tweet or policy move by the Trump administration.

So, given that context, these nominations must be viewed as political and media moves as much as bona fide nominees to lead the Highlands Council.

Second, Gov. Murphy hasn’t gotten his Pinelands nominees confirmed  – not all of them are are stellar – and there is no evidence that he is willing to take on a fight with Senate President Sweeney to secure their confirmation.

That failure does not instill confidence.

I’ll eat my hat if these Highlands nominees get confirmed by the Senate, although that’s possible, because Sweeney and his boss George Norcross don’t have interests in the Highlands like they do in the Pinelands. There is also more support for the Highlands among Democrats in the Senate than in the Pinelands.

Third, the nominees themselves, while far better than Gov. Christie and prior Democratic administrations, raise concerns.

  • Dan Van Abs

Dan had a long career as a manger of water resource programs at the DEP. I’ve had many interactions with him. Van Abs is not a leader. He did virtually nothing with his career at DEP. Instead, he was an impediment to reform and a consummate turf protecting process dominated bureaucrat and careerist. He left DEP to head the science program at the Highlands Council and similarly did nothing there. He’s now at Rutgers and still playing it safe as a technocrat and pseudo-academic. Dan lacked the fire in the belly to fight the bureaucratic wars – it takes fire in the belly and a spine to fight the far larger policy and political wars.  I assume you’ve read his op-ed’s at NJ Spotlight, where he’s a regular contributor and purveyor of conventional wisdom. Politicians have appointed Dan to various do nothing bodies, like the Clean Water Council.

Dan stays well between the lines laid down by the powers that be in Trenton. In that regard, he’s a well qualified but safe nominee and won’t ruffle any feathers. Don’t expect Dan to pioneer any major new initiatives.

  • Wynnie-Fred Victor Hinds

Wynnie is said to be a member of the Newark Environmental Commission. Anyone in a position to know in Newark who has not blown the whistle is troubling. I do not know the woman and hate to criticize moves the promote diversity and justice, but this one is a bridge too far.

On policy substance, I see nothing in her Linked background that indicates academic training or experience in the Highlands, or on land use or water resource issues.

Equally troubling, since I last accessed her linked page just a few days ago, she has changed the “interests” section, by deleting various business and financial interests (including Bill Gates, among others). Fortunately, I took a screen shot (on 8/27/19)

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 12.02.52 PM

Compare those “interests” to what’s posted today (8/30/19) – Adam Grant and Richard Branson are the only shared interest! Gone are all the other corporate money types.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 9.57.07 AM

So, I see that as scrubbing her background, a dishonest move.

I also note that she is a member of the Board of Clean Water Action – This is the group that endorsed Gov. Christie in 2009 and provided green cover for him for 2 years of his first term. I have zero respect for their “transactional” approach to politics and public policy. Given these facts, the nomination creates the appearance of a quid pro quo, as CWA endorsed Gov. Murphy and – in an unseemly pattern – regularly is quoted in the Gov.’s own press releases praising the Governor.

[Update: A reader advised that Hinds also is on the Board of the Highlands Coalition and is employed by ANJEC as Community Outreach Manager. Contrary to my initial assessment, that provides some Highlands and environmental experience, but not much. But it also reinforces my sense that the nomination was throwing a bone to the Gov.’s political supporters. ~~~ end update]

  • Bill Kibler

Bill is highly competent and a solid choice, with knowledge and experience in the Highlands on water resource and land use issues. He’s a strong communicator, committed to the Highlands and the public interest, and very good to work with. But, it is a stretch to call him an “activist”. Bill is a mainstream ANJEC type person with a local focus, who spent perhaps too much time in ineffective watershed planning collaborations. I get the sense that Bill doesn’t like to make waves. But, he’s far, far better as a man and professional than many that he associates with and should be confirmed quickly by the Senate.

[Update: Kibler also is on the Board of the Highlands Coalition]

So, given all this, I am troubled that the Governor’s move is driven by political manipulation as much as policy. I see this as a political act and symbolic gesture more than a serious commitment.

And the timing suggests a new low in cynical governance and news management.

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