We knew the vote would be close, but we didn’t know Robert Barr’s appointment to the Pinelands Commission would be as controversial as the nominee. As over 100 Pinelands advocates sat in the Senate chambers, the Senate voted 19 in favor and 18 opposed, blocking the nomination. Since it didn’t reach 21 required to pass, Senate President Sweeney tabled the roll call vote for later in the session.
In the weeks prior to the vote, a rare move by four former Governors occurred when Governors Whitman, Florio, Bryne, and Kean urged the Senate to protect the integrity and independence of the commission. They knew Barr’s nomination could undo the Comprehensive Management Plan and open up the Pinelands for inappropriate development. The Pinelands are a UN biosphere reserve and one of the largest sources of fresh drinking water on the east coast.
That morning, five Senators from both parties, including Smith, Bateman, Gill, Lesniak and Beck spoke in opposition to Barr's nomination. The Christie Administration and Senator Sweeney wanted to appoint Barr because of political retribution and to stack the deck with commissioners who would vote in favor of an unnecessary gas pipeline. The pipeline would cut a scar through the Pinelands to serve a polluting power plant outside of the Pinelands.
During the hour between the second vote, Senator Sweeney was also able to persuade Senator Joe Pennacchio to change his vote to favor Barr. Sweeney did not vote in the first round and only participated when he saw he could not get the majority in favor. This allowed Barr’s appointment to reach 21 in favor and 17 opposed. It was a sad day, not only for 40 years of Pinelands Protections, but for the democratic process.
Barr is not qualified to serve on the Pinelands Commission. When Barr was interviewed during Committee he said he had no opinion of the pipeline, but he is part of the political operation that is pushing for the pipeline. His only qualification is he is part of the political machine and would have done their dirty work for the people who want to push through the South Jersey Gas Pipeline. Appointing Barr shows just how desperate the Christie administration is to stack the Pinelands Commission. This is an attempt for a Christie-Norcross-Sweeney takeover of what was an independent board set up to protect the Pinelands, not special interests.
This appointment was about retribution. The Christie Administration is trying to get rid of all the Pinelands Commissioners who opposed the pipeline in the past. Barr’s nomination to replace Robert Jackson, who voted against the pipeline, was part of that purge. The Administration pushed Barr because it would be tougher for Democrats on the Committee who support the Pinelands to vote against just a lone democrat. This was a tactical move by the Administration to try to take over the Pinelands Commission, like they did when they weakened Highlands’ protections and rolled back protection in the Meadowlands. This is an administration that targets planning and environmental protections to benefit developers and polluters.
The political manipulation and games played all to get one commissioner on the Pinelands Commission were an outrageous abuse of power and shameful legislative display. Barr's nomination was blocked twice in the Judiciary Committee and finally got through when Senator Sweeney substituted Senator Van Drew for Senator Lesniak, a Barr opponent. Senator Van Drew is Barr's former boss and the pipeline’s biggest supporter.
The ignorance of public opposition and political arm twisting only shows how important protecting the Pinelands is to our state. The senators who voted in conscious against this appointment should be thanked and we should continue to express our concerns about the Pinelands Commission. Thousands of residents called, e-mailed, and rallied to try block this nomination and we can’t give up now. This nomination can be a turning point for the Pinelands, not in the direction of dismantling protections, but in public’s fight to protect the Pinelands all over again. We fought to protect the Pinelands for 40 years and we will fight or another forty.