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Column: Christie Muscles Out Highlands Head

On Thursday, the New Jersey Highlands Council is slated to remove its executive director, at the behest of Gov. Christie.

An appeals panel last week , saying New Jersey’s chief executive does not have broad control over independent authorities.

Chris Christie may not have the right to reorganize an independent agency, but his influence is nevertheless as strong as ever over bodies like the New Jersey Highlands Council, where the governor is about to (indirectly) unseat the  executive director.

Eileen Swan has headed the council’s staff for almost five years, the longest term of its three directors. A former council member and member of the task force that originally recommended creating a preservation area in the North Jersey Highlands, Swan has worked diligently to enforce the state law governing the region and balance the competing interests of environmental preservation and economic development.

Need proof? Neither the land owners who feel their property values were stolen, nor the environmentalists who want to prohibit new development are happy with her.

Under Swan’s leadership, the council has won lower affordable housing obligations for Highlands communities, convinced numerous towns that did not have to abide by the county’s regional master plan to do so and endorsed the controversial PSE&G transmission line and Tennessee Gas Pipeline.

“I’ve never met anyone more hard-working and ethical than Eileen,” said Chester Township Mayor and former Highlands council member Bill Cogger. “People may not have always liked what they were being told, but they always felt she was being fair.”

Swan is even a Republican.

So what’s her problem? She’s not Christie’s Republican.

The governor has put pressure on council members to get rid of Swan and instead install Christie’s choice, solving a GOP political problem in the governor’s home county at the same time.

There’s a fight shaping up for three county freeholder seats. But incumbent Gene Feyl shouldn’t have to worry about that after Thursday. While he appears to have little or no planning experience, Feyl is reportedly the choice of a majority of council members for executive director of this regional planning body.

This serves many purposes. It gets rid of the director the administration doesn’t want and installs someone who can be controlled, at the same time rewarding a loyal Republican who would otherwise face a serious primary battle.

As a bonus benefit for Feyl, it would mean a huge boost to his public pension.

And despite this being a democracy, it all happens behind the scenes via phone calls that sources say pressure council members to make the change.

The direction Christie wants the council to take was apparent from several of his appointments, all of whom have spoken against the Highlands Act: Roxbury Mayor Jim Bilee and freeholders Robert Walton of Hunterdon and Richard Vohden of Sussex.

By law, Christie had to appoint some Democrats, but it’s probable at least one will vote to unseat Swan.

And it will be interesting to see how council members like Chester farmer Kurt Alstede justify Swan’s removal, given Alstede—despite disagreeing with the law —has had nothing but praise for the woman with whom he has worked for most of the last eight years.

Any complaints about the Highlands should not be with Swan, but with the regulations, which were enacted by the Legislature. Democratic lawmakers need to take some responsibility for Swan’s removal, given they voted for those Christie nominees who are avowed opponents of the law.

“The governor and the elected state representatives from the Highlands region have been consistently working to weaken the region's environmental protections and those efforts are now coming to fruition,” said Elliot Ruga of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition in a release last week bemoaning Swan’s removal.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak was quoted as calling the press release “hysterical and overwrought.” But not denying it.

Given that Thursday’s council agenda includes an item regarding the executive director’s position, no denial is needed.

“The removal of a competent and dedicated leader from her job for purely political purposes is just the most recent of many egregious actions when it comes to protecting the health and quality of life of New Jersey's residents,” said Ruga. “For all of his talk and bluster, Christie's policies are bad for New Jersey and his methods are just more of the same sad ‘politics as usual’ that have come to typify government in our state.”

The appeals court decision on COAH alluded to the comment many have made, that New Jersey’s governor is the most powerful in the nation.

No doubt about that.

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. 

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