New Jersey Senate Confirms Controversial Nominee

By John Celock

The New Jersey state Senate confirmed a controversial nominee to the state’s Pinelands Commission following a first vote that had failed.

Robert Barr, who has been opposed for his potential support for a pipeline project through the wetlands, was confirmed in a 22-17 vote following a debate where opponents said Gov. Chris Christie (R) was trying to force the pipeline through the commission. An initial vote on Barr’s nomination failed 19-18 with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) holding the vote open. Barr will replace Robert Jackson, who had opposed the pipeline.

“There is a concern that this appointment is designed to stack the deck,” Senate Environment and Energy Committee Chairman Bob Smith (D-New Brunswick) said during the debate.

Smith said that he did not want a choice that could “violate the Pinelands,” a one million acre wetland in South Jersey created in 1979 by then Gov. Brendan Byrne (D). Jackson had voted against the pipeline, which failed in a 7-7 vote by the commission. Former Gov. Jon Corzine (D) appointed Jackson to the commission.

Barr is an ally of Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), who supports the pipeline.

Barr’s nomination and impact on the pipeline project has proven controversial with environmental groups, along with lawmakers in both parties voicing opposition. Earlier this month Byrne joined former Govs. Tom Kean (R), Jim Florio (D) and Christie Whitman (R) in co-authoring a letter urging the Senate to reject Barr’s nomination.

“For thirty-five years, the Pinelands Commission has been the bedrock of the Pinelands conservation effort,” the former governors wrote. “Its extraordinary success in that mission is due in great part to the fact that it has functioned as an independent executive agency without undue interference in its implementation of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan. Recent events threaten to erode that independence.”

Florio is a former chairman of the Pinelands Commission, while Whitman is a former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The opposition of the former governors was cited in the Senate debate.

Senate opponents argued in the debate that Christie was seeking to replace commissioners who disagreed with him. Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Neshanic Station) said that he did not think commission members should be replaced over votes. Senate President Pro Tempore Nia Gill (D-Montclair) said she was concerned with the message the vote would send.

“If we vote to support the governor’s decision to remove Mr. Jackson, we will send a message to the rest of the Pinelands Commission and the rest of the boards in our state, do as the governor says or be removed from your position,” she said.