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Column: Politics of Feyl's Highlands Job

By the way, there's a nice pension boost in it for Feyl, too.

The of the New Jersey Highlands Council last Thursday accomplished several goals—most of them political, but with a nice personal perk for Feyl.

It took Feyl out of contention for another term as a Morris County freeholder, allowing him to land safely—and cozily, with a $116,000 salary almost five times larger than he gets now—without having to worry about a messy primary fight with the conservative team opposing the incumbent Republicans in June.

And talk about cozy! Were Feyl to lose a Republican primary fight in June and leave office at the end of the year, he would retire with a maximum annual pension of about $13,300, according to the Retirement Estimate calculation tool on the state pension system website. But if Feyl, 66, spends just one year at the helm of the Highlands and retires May 1, 2013—four months longer than that freeholder’s tenure—his yearly pension will skyrocket by almost $50,000, to some $63,200.

That adds up to an extra $1 million in 20 years. Those are pension payments that were not properly funded because payments are made by the employer and employee based on salary over time and are not set up to handle the pension obligation created by large pay boosts, a problem that crops up often in New Jersey when politicians with long careers at low salaries get high-salaried political appointments prior to retirement.

But Gov. Chris Christie, a former Morris County freeholder himself and now the steward of the state budget, surely wouldn’t condone the creation of such an unfunded pension obligation, so that can’t be the main reason for the change.

That reason is to give himself greater control over the council by installing his own man at its helm.

As some of the seven council members who voted no on Feyl last week said, the Christie administration is pushing several environmental rollbacks and .

“This is going to be a direct appointment by the governor and he will take his orders from the governor,” said Carl Richko, a member of the Highlands council, who likened the council’s action to “an episode of the Twilight Zone, a Marx Brothers movie or a documentary on government and bad politics.”

Feyl is an affable man and able politician. Both sides agree to that.

But that should not be how a regional planning body, which should not be a political animal, chooses its leader.

The New Jersey Pinelands Commission, a similar body in South Jersey, formed a special search committee in 2010 when its director resigned. That committee advertised the position. It interviewed six candidates and recommended two to the full commission. Ultimately, the Pinelands Commission hired Nancy B. Wittenberg, who spent the last two decades in environmental positions with the state Department of Environmental Protection and New Jersey Builders Association.

How did the Highlands Commission, which oversees 860,000 North Jersey acres from which flow two-thirds of the state’s drinking water, choose its new director?

No special committee, no advertisement and only one interview and recommendation: Feyl.

According to the Morris County website, Feyl is a “consultant to the food manufacturing industry.” He does have “planning” experience, as chairman of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, a position he has held since January on a board that meets every other month. He has been a freeholder since January 2007. Prior to that, he was the mayor of Denville and served on its council.

According to Kurt Alstede, vice chairman of the council, Feyl also served as a school board member. In totality, said Alstede of Feyl’s credentials, “It’s a very strong resume.”

Really? To be director of a regional planning body dealing with HUC 14s, TDRs and TMDLs in its RMP?

As of last Thursday, Feyl had not yet read the entire master plan (RMP)—he said he had gone through “most” of it. But having read, never mind understood, the 464-page document was not a requirement for the new director. There were no requirements. There was no process. There was only the anointing of the man who everyone knew would get the job even before Swan was removed, both moves on orders from Christie’s office.

Feyl is now in charge. The environmentalists aren’t happy and even one of the land owners isn’t sure he will be on their side. After the 8-7 vote installing him as chief, Feyl said he “gets” the importance of the council’s responsibility for clean water. His goal is “to bring the entire Highlands region together.” That will be no small task, given the sharp divisions on the council that shifted pro-development when Christie finally got, with Trenton Democrats’ tacit approval, majority control of the council.

If Feyl can fulfill the legal mandates for the region, protect the water supply and fragile open spaces and historic sites and deliver financial equity for landowners, he will prove his environmental critics wrong. But that’s a big if.

This post is shared among multiple Patch sites serving communities in Morris and Sussex counties. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.

bill wolfe April 24, 2012 at 02:20 PM
Thomas - maybe they can put some industrial development or strip mall or condo complex in your backyard, and lower your property value (if you own a home).
bill wolfe April 24, 2012 at 02:22 PM
The Highlands Act is based on the US Forest Service Report, which found that "home rule" (local land use controls) would destroy the region's environment and risk the water supply of 4 million people. That's why the Act rescinded "home rule" in the Preservation area. I thought Republicans supported law enforcement - why do they gut environmental laws?
bill wolfe April 24, 2012 at 02:23 PM
The bigger problem is the new policy direction the Christie appointees want to take the Council in. Clearly, they all want to weaken the land use restrictions and water resource protections and promote economic development. That should be the only real issue here. Adam Zellner was an unqualified Director that was installed by the Governor's Office. While he was there to SUPPORT the Highlands Act (a huge difference because Feyl will weaken and gut it), Zellner was still a Governor's political appointee that lacked qualifications. Unfortunately, the position has been politicized badly - that's about the only thing I agree with Mr. Alsteed on. Focus on the substance - the politics and process are corrupt on a bipartisan basis.
PatienceWorth April 24, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Strange O'Dea missed the part of Gene's resume that everyone else has (this is cut from The Patch) chose to point out in Gene's open space background: “Gene started the first Open Space plan in Denville that eventually secured over 1,200 acres in open space acquisitions,” Rilee said. Jim Rilee, Highlands Council Chair. I guess O'Dea was out that day in journalism school.
Martatown April 24, 2012 at 10:16 PM
Pick a party. They all have their hands in ou pockets. Disgraceful.

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