Senate President Packs the Judiciary Committee in Order to Pack the Pinelands Commission

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Environment New Jersey

Trenton, NJ – At an extraordinary session earlier today, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted seven in favor, five against, and one abstention to advance the governor’s nomination of Robert Barr to join the Pinelands Commission.  But that vote depended on Senate President Stephen Sweeney putting Senator Jeff Van Drew on the committee for this vote in place of the absent Senator Ray Lesniak.  Had Sen. Lesniak not been returning from vacation, the vote would have failed because he was publicly opposed to the nomination.  So only by scheduling the vote for a special meeting when he expected one opponent to be absent, and putting a friend and proponent of Mr. Barr on the committee, could the Senate President obtain the needed approval.  (One Senator who voted ‘no’ in the roll call appears to have subsequently switched his vote to a ‘yes’ after the nomination was already approved.) 

Conservationists and several Senators understood this nomination is aimed at packing the Pinelands Commission with enough votes to reverse the Commission’s prior denial, in January 2014, of a deal that would permit South Jersey Gas to build a natural gas pipeline through the supposedly-protected Pinelands Forest Area.  The Judiciary Committee had twice tabled the nomination because the governor and Senate President could not muster the seven affirmative votes required to move the nomination to the full Senate.  Only on the third try, and only by exercising the power of the Senate President to set the stage very carefully, could the nomination move forward.

“The effort to pack the Pinelands Commission with pipeline supporters led the Senate President to pack the Judiciary Committee on this one day for this one vote to help this one development project,” said Carleton Montgomery, Executive Director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA).  “That is not good for the Pinelands or the proper functioning of our government.” 

 “This is Bridgegate in the Pines,” said Doug O’Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey. “This was clear quid pro quo. If you vote against the Christie Administration, you will face the consequences. Commissioner Robert Jackson voted his conscience and is on the verge of getting canned. This vote calls into question whether the integrity of the Pinelands Commission can be maintained.”

Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said in the hearing, “The main issue for me is that we are replacing someone who has both the qualifications, the understanding with the issues, laws and regulations around the Pinelands Commission, and by that replacement we are sending another message, a message that has been sent too many times over the last five years, if you stand up and do something that this Governor doesn’t approve of, you are replaced and told to sit down and shup up.” 

Senator Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) stated during the hearing, “We are doing a disservice to the integrity of the Pinelands Commission.  I vote ‘no’.”

 Senator Nia Gill (D-Essex) said, “This is about power.  This is about saying to people if you disagree with Governor Christie, you will be removed.  And in that removal, it will set a tone for all of us, so that all good people need to do is to remain silent and that is what we will be saying – have no opposition , remain silent, so you can remain in your position. Because to challenge the Governor means that we will make sure that you do not serve.”

 “This vote is a clear marker between those who want the Pinelands protected and those who don’t, for those who prioritize good government and those who don’t, for those who vote their conscience on the big issues and those who backslap and trade their votes too often,” said David Pringle, New Jersey Campaign Director for Clean Water Action.  “We are especially disappointed in Senator Sweeney, who went to such great lengths to engineer this vote. and in Senators Kyrillos and Sarlo, who provided critical swing votes in favor of the nomination.  Senators Weinberg, Gill and Bateman deserve special appreciation for their leadership in opposition.”

Jeff Tittel, Executive Director of the Sierra Club New Jersey Chapter, stated, “After Robert Barr was blocked twice in the past, dirty politics reared its ugly head. We are outraged by this abuse of power by the Democratic leadership and Christie Administration in bullying the Judiciary Committee to push this nomination through.  This Administration has weakened protections in the Highlands, rolled back protection in the Meadowlands, and is now attacking the Pinelands.  It is not just about the pipeline.  This appointment signals an effort to dismantle 40 years of Pinelands protections and a successful growth management plan.”

Pinelands supporters are now asking the full Senate to reject this nomination, at least until South Jersey Gas has given up its effort to override the Pinelands protection laws for its pipeline.

The Judiciary Committee voted as follows:

Voting in favor of the nomination in the hearing                          

Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen)                 

Sen. Michael Dougherty (R-Warren, Hunterdon)     

Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth)             

Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex)                                  

Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic)               

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen)

Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May, assigned to committee for this vote)

Voting against the nomination in the hearing

Senator Nicholas Scutari, Chair (D-Union)

Senator Kip Bateman (R-Somerset)

Senator Nia Gill (D-Essex)

Senator Brian Stack (D-Hudson).  Sen. Stack appears to have subsequently changed his vote to a ‘yes’ after the hearing, as permitted by Senate practice.

Senator Loretta Weinberg, Majority Leader (D-Bergen)


Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex and Somerset)

The timing and circumstances in which the governor nominated Mr. Barr, and the support his nomination has received from supporters of the pipeline deal, make absolutely clear this is an attempt to pack the Pinelands Commission and get it to reverse its prior rejection of that deal.  The governor made the nominations shortly after the Pinelands Commission voted down the original pipeline deal and South Jersey Gas made clear it intended to get the pipeline built despite the Commission’s January 2014 “no” vote.  Mr. Barr, the current nominee, is a protégé of Senator Van Drew of Cape May County, having been involved in discussions aimed at advancing the pipeline project before he was nominated in April 2014.

The pipeline is proposed to bring natural gas to the BL England power plant on the shore of Great Egg Harbor in Upper Township, Cape May County.  The power plant is owned by Rockland Capital Energy Investments LLC, a Texas-based energy investment fund.  The deal presented to the Pinelands Commission would have had the Commission and the Board of Public Utilities sign a memorandum of agreement authorizing South Jersey Gas to build the pipeline through the Pinelands Forest Area in violation of Pinelands regulations.  Even though the pipeline would supply gas only to the power plant and only benefit Rockland Capital, the BPU is letting South Jersey Gas charge its customers for 60% of the cost of building the pipeline, on the premise that the pipeline could also be used to supply gas to customers if the existing transmission line somehow failed.

The coalition is calling on those who value the Pinelands and good government to contact their state Senator about this important issue.