Judiciary approves dozens of appointments, including contentious Highlands nominee

TRENTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved another long list of nominees today, including one Highlands appointment that took some

TRENTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved another long list of nominees today, including one Highlands appointment that took some serious convincing by the administration and Senate president for approval.

The controversial nominee was Richard Vohden, a Sussex County freeholder who was nominated for a spot on the Highlands Water Protection & Planning Council.

State Sen. Bob Smith, (D-17), Piscataway, was prosecutorial in his examination of Vohden who owns 44 acres in Green Township within the Highlands protected planning area, adjacent to his son’s property.

Smith asked Vohden whether the Highlands Act and the inclusion of his township in the act have an effect on his or his family’s property values. Vohden first said it did not and that he had been coming to that conclusion over several years after initially joining a group in opposition to the Highlands Act.

But Smith produced a letter that Vohden sent the Department of Environmental Protection last year, which claimed Vohden’s property values were in fact being hurt by the water-protection act.

“You have tried to lobby the Christie administration to change the regulations,” Smith said. Vohden’s letter asked for access to private stakeholder meetings concerning the law and claimed the law “impacted my land values.”

“I was lobbying for a chair, a seat, at this meeting,” Vohden said, “to get answers to these questions (of land compensation).” Asked whether he attended any of the meetings, Vohden said, “I don’t recall.”

The nominee distanced himself from his past positions against the act: “I believe the act is now the law of the land and has to be enforced.”

When Vohden ran for freeholder, he claimed to be a charter member of an opposition group, but said today that he misunderstood what a charter member is.

“I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know what a charter member meant,” Vohden admitted, but Smith noted that the distinction was only recently removed by Vohden from his campaign bio after he was nominated for the Highlands post. “After my election I never looked at that website again,” Vohden said.

Smith pointed out that Vohden was also part of a lawsuit against the act.

“Yes, I was looking for the guidance of the courts,” Vohden said.

But in his Highlands questionnaire submitted to the Senate, Vohden neglected to list the lawsuit.

“Your lawsuit to overturn it is a public act,” Smith said. “It should have been listed.”

Chairman Nick Scutari, (D-22), Linden, asked Vohden, “Do you remember filing that document?”

“Vaguely,” Vohden said, claiming he was caught up in a group of two dozen opponents influenced by “the passion, the anger, the frustration” brought on by passage of the Highlands Act. “Twenty people said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do that,’ and it never went anywhere,” Vohden said.

Scutari asked what relief was sought through the lawsuit.

“At that point it was compensation,” Vohden said.

Vohden said Smith, at the time of the bill’s passage, met with residents in the north to convince them that the bill had provisions to provide adequate compensation.

“He talked about Tom Cruise and ‘Show me the money,’ ” Vohden said. “He was my hero (that night) and I loved it, but we have been asking since” about the compensation issue.

State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, (R-39), Demarest, said he saw nothing wrong with filing a lawsuit.

After serious cajoling by Michelle Brown, who heads Gov. Chris Christie’s appointments division, and state Sen. President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), West Deptford, Vohden was released without a recommendation from the board so that the full Senate can vote the candidate.

State Sens. Brian Stack, (D-33), Union City, and Scutari joined the Republican committee members to move Vohden along.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak, (D-20), Elizabeth, said it is “like putting a honey badger in charge of wildland preservation.”

“Honey badger don’t care. Honey badger don’t give a (expletive),” he said.

Also approved before the panel were Joseph Buckelew (N.J. Sports & Exposition Authority); Mary-Anna Holden (N.J. Board of Public Utilities); and Yolette Ross (State Parole Board).

Judiciary approves dozens of appointments, including contentious Highlands nominee