Policy Notes: December 2023
On Race and Gender, New Jersey Boards and Commissions in Need of Diversity—the Pinelands Commission, even more so. Policy Notes are designed to update the public on the activities of the Pinelands Commission, which have been summarized by Pinelands Preservation Alliance staff who attend all public meetings of the Commission.
By Heidi YehJanuary 10, 2024
Representation Matters, Governor Murphy
The Pinelands Commission has a new member: Dr. Jessica Rittler Sanchez, who was finally confirmed by the NJ Senate Judiciary Committee on December 7, 2023, years after her initial nomination by Governor Murphy. Her confirmation to the Pinelands Commission is one small step towards a more diverse Pinelands Commission. A recent report ‘From Data to Diversity’ by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics of Rutgers University, characterized New Jersey’s state boards, commissions, and authorities as having “significant disparities in representation in appointed positions for women and among various racial/ethnic groups.” In 2021, the CAWP was directed by the NJ State Legislature (with bills S4004/A5940) to perform a survey of the 63 boards and commissions that govern many aspects of life in New Jersey. The survey examined the gender, racial, and ethnic composition of the 2266 appointed officials to provide a snapshot of demographics between September 2022 and June 2023; you can read the summary and find the full dataset here.
During the study period, 92% of Pineland Commissioners identified as white and 77% identified as male—the numbers are even higher when including other non-voting appointees, such as the Deputy Attorney General. This puts the Pinelands Commission at 10% less women and 27% less non-white appointees than the state overall. Despite the turnover that has occurred since the time of the study, the demographics of the Pinelands Commission have remained almost exactly the same.
Of course, race and gender are just two characteristics among many that each member brings to the Commission. The report acknowledges that studying a broader array of characteristics such as age and parental status could also be useful, but the legislation restricted their study to just race and gender.
Discussions that take place at Commission meetings are enriched by the diverse professional experiences that members bring. For example, Jerome Irick often offers his perspective as a farmer and Doug Wallner can speak on forestry and wildfire management issues from his career in the National Park Service. Nicholas Asselta and Mark Mauriello both contribute their expertise on the inner workings of the Board of Utilities (NJBPU) and Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) from their respective experiences as the former heads of each state agency. Mark Lohbauer and Theresa Lettman reliably ask pointed questions of applications that come before the commission to highlight persistent environmental concerns. We anticipate that Dr. Jessica Sanchez will be another strong voice for the environment on the commission, given her wealth of experience in regional planning and water resource management from her career working for the Delaware River Basin Commission. Conversations that happen among commissioners leading up to a vote on specific issues often influence the final positions that members take as they cast their votes, so various perspectives must be represented in this discourse.
The Governor has the potential to hold great influence over the composition of this government body. The Pinelands Commission is comprised of fifteen members, seven of whom are nominated by the governor, one appointed by each of the seven Pinelands Counties (Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean), and one federal representative from the Department of the Interior.
The Governor has the opportunity to nominate two more individuals to join the Pinelands Commission; these seats were vacated in January and August of 2023, respectively—yet the Governor has still not made any indication of when he intends to fill them. Given the recent interest in accessibility of Pinelands resources to those with mobility challenges, and the need to amend the CMP to accommodate future accessibility projects, Pinelands Preservation Alliance would like to see a disability rights advocate join the Commission. We would also like to see new members with deep experience working in environmental justice communities on issues of environmental equity. You can help us advocate for a full and diversified Pinelands Commission by asking Governor Murphy to make progress on new nominations ASAP. You can contact him with the following suggested message:
“Governor Murphy, the Pinelands Commission has two empty seats that won’t be filled until you take action. We need you to nominate individuals who will be strong environmental advocates and bring a diversity of experiences to the Pinelands Commission, which lags behind the rest of the state’s boards and commissions in both racial and gender diversity. You have the power to shape the Pinelands Commission; please use it and make these nominations ASAP.”
A Tribute to the Volunteers
It was a quiet month at the Pinelands Commission—at least when it comes to public meetings. There were no committee meetings, and the single full meeting of the Commission that did take place was about 20 minutes long. It was likely the second shortest Pinelands Commission meeting to ever take place, as Commissioner Avery recalls there once being a 15-minute meeting.
Meetings typically have much longer run times of about 1.5-2.5 hours. Multiply this by the 1-3 other committee meetings that Commissioners may participate in over the course of a month, and it becomes clear that this position is a significant time commitment. Pinelands Commissioners volunteer their time to serve in this role, so we would like to commend Commissioners Lohbauer, Avery, and Asselta for their perfect attendance records in 2023. We also recognize the large amounts of reading that may be required to prepare to make informed decisions ahead of the meetings, and it is clear from the pointed questions that Commissioner Lettman asks that she has gone through the applications with a fine-tooth comb to find all of the potential areas of concern. Questions that arise from this close analysis typically spur productive conversations among the Commissioners and staff on the finer details of land use policy in the Pinelands. We hope that the Governor will move quickly to add more voices to this discourse by filling the two remaining vacancies on the Commission.
Pinelands Municipal Council Watch
Months since the Pinelands Municipal Council Last met: 15
Will 2024 be the year that we see the reboot of the Pinelands Municipal Council?