Four former New Jersey governors took the extraordinary step Monday of writing to all 40 state senators, urging them to reject the appointment of Robert Barr to the Pinelands Commission.
The four — Brendan T. Byne, Thomas H. Kean, Christine Todd Whitman and James J. Florio — each signed the letter, dated March 2, expressing their concern that Barr, of Ocean City, would compromise the independence of the agency.
“Recent events threaten to erode that independence,” the governors wrote, alluding to Gov. Chris Christie’s systematic removal of commissioners who voted against a proposed natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands last year. The pipeline, which Christie and state Sen. Jeff Van Drew support, would allow the B.L. England Generating Station in the Beesleys Point section of Upper Township to convert from coal to gas.
Barr could not be reached for comment Monday. He would replace Robert Jackson, of Middle Township, a commissioner many consider far superior in subject knowledge to Barr, who professed last year during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee to an intentional ignorance of the Pinelands.
“The Senate can preserve the integrity of the Pinelands program, and help protect the work of other independent executive agencies, by withholding confirmation of this nomination at this time,” the four former governors wrote.
“This has become somewhat of a political issue,” said Van Drew D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, adding he was “profoundly disappointed” to learn of the letter’s existence. “They are reacting to the construction of the pipeline,” he said of the former governors.
“These are two separate issues. One is the character, qualities and characteristics of a profoundly thoughtful individual with a stellar resume, and the other is whether we should build a pipeline or not.”
Van Drew, for whom Barr works as a legislative aide, said he thought Barr’s friendship and advocacy of him “has somewhat hurt” the nominee.
The nomination of Barr was released by the Judiciary Committee last week on an 8-4-1 vote.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, who opposes Barr’s nomination, released a statement in response to the governor’s letter, saying, in part, he was “pleased to see the bipartisan opposition” to Barr.
“Their concern is my concern — replacing an experienced independent member of the Pinelands Commission threatens its independence,” he said.
Lesniak was deprived of the opportunity to vote “no” last week when the Judiciary Committee held a special meeting and released Barr’s nomination to the full Senate. Lesniak, who returned from vacation that day but said he was told by the Senate president's chief of staff that he was too late for the hearing, was replaced by Van Drew.
“I oppose it now and I will on the floor of the Senate when it comes up,” Lesniak said Monday of the possibility that the full Senate will be asked to vote on Barr’s appointment to the Pinelands Commission when it meets Thursday.
“We hope to get that done relatively soon, as well,” Van Drew said last week of moving Barr’s nomination before the full Senate. Lesniak said it is common procedure to act on a nomination at the first Senate meeting after the Judiciary Committee holds its vote.
“That nomination was coming out (of committee) come hell or high water,” said Lesniak, adding one could speculate last week’s special meeting was timed to coincide with his plans to be away, but, “being a realist, the votes were there regardless of my being there.”
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Middlesex, Somerset, Union, who voted against Barr’s nomination, said it is the Senate president’s decision with whom to replace an absent senator, but that it is typical to do so to ensure an odd number of voters.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
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