Friday, March 16, 2012

NJ Highlands Council Fires Exec Swan; Deputy Resigns

Over the angry objections of some of its members and numerous environmentalists, the New Jersey Highlands Council voted 8-6 last night to removed executive director Eileen Swan. Following the vote, her deputy director resigned, leaving the regional planning body leaderless.

Demonstrators show support for Eileen Swan--Daily Record photo:Abbott Koloff

The Star-Ledger reported today:
The vote on Swan, 52, followed a lengthy debate in which dozens of environmentalists and residents lavished praise on her for her abilities and dedication, and scathingly criticized the council it believes caved in to political pressure from Gov. Chris Christie.
Council member Kurt Alstede, a Chester Township farmer who voted to remove Swan, said the 2004 Highlands Act — adopted by a Democratic Legislature under Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey — has turned northwestern Jersey into “a colony of northeast Jersey.”

“Water resources have been taken from the Highlands. We’ve been promised and promised compensation,” but little has been done for landowners hurt by the act’s restrictions, said Alstede, accusing Swan of not doing enough to help property owners.

The Bergen Record noted that "shortly after Swan was fired, Deputy Director Tom Borden resigned, surprising almost everyone on the council and leaving the 25-person staff leaderless.  
Environmentalists say the pro-Christie members of the council plan to hire Morris County  Freeholder Gene Feyl, a food industry consultant who has little environmental experience.

Councilman Michael Dressler, the Bergen County surrogate, tore into his colleagues, saying the firing “was the most gutless move in 37 years of politics” and called it the “death knell” of the Highlands Act.

Other members of the council agreed. “It’s all about stopping the Highlands Act,” said Tracy Carluccio, who called Swan’s firing “a travesty.” 

Dressler said he wanted the state attorney general or the U.S. attorney to investigate whether the Open Public Meetings Act was violated since he was convinced council members had decided their vote among each other.

According to the Daily Record: 
The Highlands Coalition and Swan supporters charged that Gov. Chris Christie pressured council members to remove her, as part of a move to weaken enforcement of a law designed to protect the region’s water supply, a charge the administration has dismissed.

But council Chairman Jim Rilee, deputy mayor of Roxbury, responded by saying it was “insane” to believe environmentalists’ allegations that the removal was part of an attempt to gut the Highlands Act.
“I think you shortchanged this council,” Rilee said to a crowd of more than 60 people who attended Thursday’s meeting, many of them there to support Swan. “I’ve never seen an effort to circumvent the act."

The Council’s job is to interpret the complex 2004 Highlands Act and its subsequent 400-page master plan that placed protections on 860,000 acres over seven counties including parts of Bergen and Passaic counties. It supplies about 379 million gallons of water each day to more than 5 million residents.

The executive director is key to the decision making, making case-by-case recommendations to the council, made up of 15 part-time volunteers.

During Swan’s time as executive director, the council achieved two of its key missions. It adopted the Highland Regional Master Plan in 2008 and began approving municipal plans conforming to the Highlands master plan in 2010.  By this month, 39 of the 88 towns in the Highlands region had had their plans approved, and Swan and her staff were reviewing plans submitted by 20 more communities.

Swan, who had expected to be let go at the meeting, said,“During my term in office, we have felt an ethic of responsible government, open and transparent. I hope that continues into the future.”

Related:
Editorial: N.J. Gov. Chris Christie moves to fire a Highlands Council director he can't control

Opinion: The Thursday Night Massacre


What do you think about the Highlands Council's removal of its executive director?  And the future of the Highlands region?  Let us know in the comment box below. If one is not visible, activate it by clicking on the tiny 'comments' line.  

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