Column: Freeholders Taking Over Highlands?
Margaret Nordstrom said to be under consideration for number two spot
They ought to rename the New Jersey Highlands Council the Morris County Freeholder Re-Employment Bureau.
The latest rumor is that former freeholder Margaret Nordstrom of Long Valley is in line to become deputy director of the Highlands Council. That spot is open because Tom Borden resigned as a matter of conscience last month when the council ousted Eileen Swan as director in a political move.
No one is confirming the rumor yet. Nordstrom did tell The Observer Tribune last month that she is looking for a job within, or with the help of, the administration of Gov. Chris Christie, who lives in Morris.
Earlier this year, the state appellate court tossed Nordstrom off the freeholder board, reversing a superior court judge’s earlier order, which gave Nordstrom the seat in the first place (even though she finished a few votes behind Hank Lyon in last June’s Republican primary).
So now she needs a job.
Technically, she could retire, with a maximum annual pension of about $5,500, according to the state’s online pension calculator. But if she gets another public job, at a higher salary, she will be able to collect a much higher pension in a year or so.
Say Nordstrom gets the No. 2 spot at the Highlands and makes $104,000—that’s about 10 percent less than what newly named director and fellow freeholder refugee Gene Feyl is getting and $15,000 less than Borden had been paid. If she works for a year and retires June 1, 2013, her pension will balloon to about $25,000.
Not as impressive as the boost Feyl gets, but nothing to sneer at, either.
No, no one should be surprised by the practice of cronyism in government. But that still doesn’t make it right.
Feyl’s appointment was more egregious.
From a purely financial standpoint, a $50,000 annual pension boost is potentially large unfunded benefit, depending on how long the state has to pay it. And this governor, just last year, remember, enacted significant pension reform—benefits cuts and higher copays—to help address a statewide unfunded liability estimated at the time to total more than $50 billion. Maybe another million looks like pennies.
But Feyl doesn’t have anything approaching the experience in environmental science or planning that the director of a regional planning agency overseeing 430,000 acres designated a “preservation area” should have.
That kind of experience is arguably less important for Nordstrom, since she is only being talked about for the No. 2 job. On the other hand, she doesn’t have a law degree, like Borden did, so the council would have to hire a third person to serve as its legal counsel and that would more than negate the savings from the lower salary Feyl is receiving, unless the council decides to use the services of a state deputy attorney general for its legal advice.
Nordstrom's environmental credentials are stronger. Nordstrom testified before a House committee in June 2003 in favor of the bill authorizing $10 million a year to preserve land in the multi-state Highlands region. She has a reputation as an open space advocate, both from her time as mayor of Washington Township and as a freeholder. Somewhat ironically, Nordstrom’s legal case against Lyon blamed her freeholder loss in part on his last-minute brochure that inferred her home town got a disproportionate amount of open space funds.
Jeff Tittel, head of the Sierra Club in New Jersey and the most vociferous environmentalist in the state, conceded that Nordstrom is “good on most” environmental issues.
But he is rankled by the idea that it appears to be so easy for a crony of a governor who made his reputation prosecuting political corruption to get a high-paying job outside his field of expertise without any competitive search or interview process.
Tittel contrasted Christie’s strong condemnation of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission—he was quoted in the Star-Ledger last year as calling it “a familial piggy bank to take care of their friends, relatives and political associates”—with what is happening at the Highlands Council.
“In some ways, it’s funny,” Tittel said. “Here the governor attacks the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission and now he’s turning the Highlands Council into the retirement fund for Morris freeholders.”