Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a 5 percent raise for Pinelands Commission staff Tuesday, calling the commission’s vote a “confiscation” of public funds and “a gross abuse of authority.”

But a leading New Jersey environmentalist called Christie’s action an attempt to “intimidate” the commission after it did not approve plans for a pipeline through the Pinelands.

In a letter to Pinelands Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg, Christie said he was vetoing the commission’s March 14 decision to “Move Additional Funds Into the Personnel Component of the Commission's Budget to Increase it By 5% Over the Amount Currently Allocated.”

“This action by the Commissioners, on behalf of an authority that receives $2.5 (million) in annual appropriation and an additional $687,000 for fringe benefits from the State, was made with conscious disregard of the fiscal realities of the Pinelands Commission specifically, and the State of (New Jersey) in general,” Christie said in a statement.

“In helping themselves to funds dedicated for the benefit of many, the Pinelands Commission intends to provide its staff with a 5% across the board increase,” Christie continued. “This confiscation by the Commissioners of public funds, whether from conservation funds or from the State appropriation, is a gross abuse of authority granted to them. Furthermore, this intervention by the Commissioners undermines the current and ongoing collective negotiations process.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said in a statement that the veto is actually “the Governor trying to intimidate the Pinelands Commissioners and staff in retribution for the vote against the Pinelands pipeline.”

A draft agreement to allow South Jersey Gas to build a natural gas pipeline through 10 miles of preserved forest to re-power the B.L. England Generating Station, in exchange for $8 million, failed in January by a 7-7 commission vote.

“The Commissioners have done their job not only in protecting the Pinelands, but in giving their staff a well-deserved raise,” Tittel said. “We believe the Governor vetoed these minutes to get back at the Pinelands Commission for being independent of the Governor’s demands and the rejection of the South Jersey Natural Gas pipeline through the Pinelands. ... This is not only a penalty to the staff, but it is sending a message to the Commissioners. We are troubled by this veto because we think this is part of an ongoing tactic to pressure the Commission to now approve the pipeline.”

Fred Akers, administrator of the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association, was not surprised by the governor’s action.

“I don’t think it’s that big a deal,” said Akers, who attended the March meeting and said the Commission went into a closed session to discuss the pay increase, a measure that seemed confusing at the time.

“I don’t see it as a big threat to the Commission — that the governor is pulling a power play,” he said. “It’s more along the lines of when the governor was putting pressure on authorities to be more fiscally responsible.”

As for the pipeline decision, Akers said he doesn’t believe Christie could use the same method to overturn the Commission’s January pipeline decision because it wasn’t a mandatory vote. The memorandum of understanding failed for lack of an eighth vote.

“It’s not like a development application where they have to say yes or no by a certain time,” he said.

The pipeline has steadily gained support from politicians since the commission’s January meeting. Last month, both Christie and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, announced their support for the plan.

Akers said he’s not convinced the pipeline is necessary and, regardless how many politicians come out in support of it, the commission may not be, either.

“I think we’re beating this thing to a pulp,” he said. “Where’s the proof that it’s really needed? What’s South Jersey Gas going to do next? It’s really their move.”

Dan Lockwood, a spokesman for South Jersey Industries, said the company is still reviewing its options for the pipeline.

“We’re sort of in a pattern where we don’t know where we go next right now,” he said.

Contact Steven Lemongello:

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Contact Wallace McKelvey:

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Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.