Christie scuttles pay raise at Pinelands Commission

Posted: April 11, 2014

In a move some call unprecedented, Gov. Christie has vetoed a vote of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, rejecting its decision last month to appropriate funds for possible raises for its employees.

Environmental groups quickly denounced the governor's action, asserting that it appeared to be in retaliation for the commission's January rejection of a natural gas pipeline through a protected portion of the pine forest.

Christie's office advocated vigorously for the pipeline's approval, but the commission's 7-7 vote killed it.

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the governor, called the retaliation charges "disconnected from reality," and said Christie had rejected the commission's action because it was fiscally irresponsible and did not follow proper procedure.

Christie's April 7 letter to the commission used exceptionally biting language, however. It called the March 14 vote to set aside money for possible raises a "confiscation by the commissioners of public funds," and a "conscious disregard of the fiscal realities of the Pinelands Commission generally, and the State of N.J. in general."

Commission Chairman Mark Lohbauer declined to comment Wednesday on Christie's letter, but said the commission was motivated by concerns that its staff's pay was not keeping pace with those at similar state agencies or the private sector.

It appeared to be the first time in the 34-year history of the Pinelands Commission that a governor has rejected a portion of its minutes, effectively vetoing a vote.

Paul Leakan, spokesman for the commission, said Wednesday he was unaware of any governor's previously vetoing its minutes.

The commission has 42 full-time employees and three part-timers, according to Leakan.

Such a veto is within the governor's authority, and Christie has on rare occasions vetoed the minutes of other state boards, including the Delaware River Port Authority.

The vote had been immediately preceded by a 45-minute closed session to discuss ongoing collective bargaining.

When the session ended, the commission voted to "amend all necessary budgets, including the budget of the Pinelands Conservation Fund, in order to move all additional funds into the personnel component of the commission's budget to increase it by 5 percent over the amount currently allocated and to explore additional appropriates for future funding."

A person familiar with the commission's decision, who asked not to be identified, said that it was not an across-the-board raise, but intended to make funds available when a collective bargaining agreement is reached.

Leakan said in an e-mail that the commission's employees had received a total of 3.25 percent in pay raises since 2009.

Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said Wednesday that "it wouldn't be a big deal" even if the staff received 5 percent pay raises, "because they've been falling way behind their peers at other agencies," such as the state Department of Environmental Protection.

He said he found the tone of Christie's letter to be "really nasty," "unprofessional," and "very disturbing."

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a frequent critic of Christie, said he had heard from "someone in the governor's office" that Christie and his aides were "very angry" at the commission's "defiance" in rejecting the pipeline, and that the March vote to set money aside for raises was perceived as another defiant act.

Christie's letter, Tittel alleged, was "to send a very clear message to staff and commissioners that 'I'm in charge.'"

The pipeline, proposed by South Jersey Gas, would have run nearly 22 miles from Maurice Township in Cumberland County to a proposed gas-powered electricity generating plant in Upper Township, Cape May County. About 10 miles would have been through protected forest where utilities are barred unless their projects would primarily serve Pinelands residents.

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