Highlands Council appointees pulled, then passed

TRENTON – Two of Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees to the Highlands Council were held from a Senate confirmation vote today after Democrats protested the potential for a shift in the commission’s balance of power.

Nominees James Rilee and Robert Walton were held out of a bulk nominee vote because of Democratic concerns over the two men’s attitudes toward the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, and because of statutory requirements for a bipartisan council. By appointing the two men, the balance of the council would shift to Republican, unacceptable according to the act.

Rilee was vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, with state Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-3), of West Deptford, and Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36), of Wood-Ridge, siding with Republican Senators to clear the former mayor of Roxbury.

Walton also was approved in the committee, but was not interviewed. Additionally, comments from Walton’s Facebook page surfaced afterward.

“We all want clean drinking water, but this act went too far,” read a post on Walton’s page. “Hopefully the fight is over and the Highlands (Act) is scrapped.”

State Sen. Bob Smith (D-17), of Piscataway, was adamant that the New Jersey towns that are supplied drinking water from the natural filtration system that is the Highlands would be at risk if the act was repealed or eaten away at from the inside by a hostile council.

“You take snippets of what the man says and use them to try to say that he’s not qualified,” said state Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-25), of Boonton. The act is not being carried out properly, Bucco said, which is why criticism is emerging from these candidates. “People were not compensated for the property that was taken away from them (as a part of the Highlands Act),” he said.

Sweeney said, “There’s a very good possibility that we come back to revisit these nominations today. One or both.”

Democratic sources said most likely Walton will be held today, which would avoid the violation of statute for bipartisan appointments.

UPDATE (5:34) – The Senate approved both men, 25-10, with bipartisan compliance issues rendered moot due to a recent resignation from the Highlands Council.

Highlands Council appointees pulled, then passed