NJ Council Vacancies: A 2019-2023 Timeline Of Neglect - The Fisherman

NJ Council Vacancies: A 2019-2023 Timeline Of Neglect

An in-depth look at where and when the “buck” has stopped on the public process.

I started at The Fisherman in the fall of 2002 covering recreational fisheries in the Garden State across five different administrations, McGreevey, Codey, Corzine, Christie and now Murphy; that’s four democrats and one republican.  It’s important to note of course that recreational fishing is not a partisan issue.  While each governor did his fair share of good things for New Jersey anglers, each stumbled from time-to-time as well; from an editorial perspective, that prompted some good press and a little bad, independent of political affiliation.

There was once a time when criticizing politicians was not mired in personal partisan pride and defense, but instead was embraced as the primary role of a free press.  A sea change in political brand loyalty has helped contribute to the degradation of media scrutiny upon elected officials, something that used to be one of the pillars of democracy.  That said, in 20-plus years covering New Jersey’s recreational fishing interests, I can’t say that I’ve ever seen such blatant disregard for the public process as we’ve seen since Gov. Phil Murphy took the helm in 2018.

From a legal perspective, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council) was created by the Marine Fisheries Management and Commercial Fisheries Act of 1979 (N.J.S.A.23:2B), a state law established in part to “Encourage citizen participation through advisory councils and otherwise, since decisions concerning the distribution and allocation of fisheries resources have important consequences for all citizens of this State.”

As you’ll see in the timeline below, the spirit and intent of this “citizen participation” law is not being followed, and despite all the finger pointing, there’s really only one person responsible.

A poorly attended turnout for the May 11 discussion on striped bass at New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council is a good example of the angling public’s loss of faith and eroding participation in the public process.

The First 36 Months

As of their January 3, 2019 meeting there were just eight sitting Council members out of a total of 11.  At their following meeting in March of 2019, the official minutes reflect that the Council chair, Dick Herb, had “expressed concern over the delay and lack of new appointments to Council by the Governor’s Office.”

By the July 11, 2019 meeting of Council, appointments had still not been made with Council member John Maxwell pointing out similar issues on other public panels.  From the official minutes, “Mr. Maxwell brought to the attention of the full Council the lack of Shellfish Council members and the resulting difficulty of achieving a quorum to have official meetings and decide on shellfish issues.”

Chairman Herb echoed the sentiment saying the full council is having similar problems and warning they might not be able to vote on mandatory compliance regulations if the problem continues.  Ray Bukowski, then Assistant Commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) further stated “many of the Councils throughout the state are having the same issues.”

In that same meeting, Bureau of Marine Fisheries Administration (MFA) chief Jeff Brust noted “Most of the committees are experiencing a similar issue to the Council’s current issue of missing necessary members to ensure proper stakeholder representation.”  By the September 5, 2019 Council meeting, membership was down to just seven following the departure of James Alexis.

The issue of missing Council members came up again at the November 7, 2019 meeting when the official meeting minutes state, “Mr. Maxwell reported that both sections of the Shellfish Council have become increasingly concerned with the vacancies on the councils, as well as the much-needed reappointments. The Delaware Bay Council has only three of five members, and the Atlantic Coast side only has two of five seats filled. This leads to inadequate representation and cancelled meetings due to lack of quorum. If these seats are not filled soon the Council will not be able to conduct business which is necessary as stated by statutory authority.”

In response, Council chairman Herb said he understood the situation looking at the Marine Fisheries Council as being in “the same situation,” while Assistant Commissioner Bukowski indicated that he too “understood the situation, but nothing had changed.”  As per the official meeting minutes, a nomination package was completed which Council hoped would move to the Governor’s office quickly, as it had been discussed regularly among staff and then NJDEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe.  Council member Dr. Eleanor Bochenek asked if the process was stalled at the Governor’s level or elsewhere; according to Bukowski, the appointment package was in the Commissioner’s office who was communicating with the Boards of Commissions in the Governor’s Office. Chairman Herb commented that Senior Staff had been aware of this serious issue, and said it was being worked on.

Following an overflowing meeting room in Stafford Township to address striped bass management in February of 2020, the Council would next meet again on May 14th where it was announced that “Council appointments, including new and renewals, were heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be moved to the full Senate for hearings.” By the time the Council reconvened on July 9, 2020, two of the vacant seats were finally filled, with Patrick Donnelly of Brick assuming one of the “sportfish” seats and Capt. Kevin Wark of Barnegat Light taking over a “commercial” seat vacated by Alexis the previous year.  Council member Barney Hollinger also announced that a new Council member was appointed to the Delaware Bay Shellfish Council.

At the September 10, 2020 meeting of the Council, Chairman Herb officially welcomed Jeff Kaelin as the newest appointee for the commercial sector, while also announcing that sportfish seat-holder Sergio Radossi had officially stepped down from the Council, net council gain of zero. “Mr. Herb described recent issues with Council, Council committee membership, and meeting attendance,” the minutes stated, as the Council was now made up of nine members with one missing recreational vote and one “at large” member of the public also un-appointed.

By the November 5, 2020 meeting of the Council, I began to ask a series of questions about these two council vacancies.  According to the official minutes from this final meeting of 2020, Bukowski and MFA administrator Joe Cimino both explained “the open seats are on their radar and the intentions are to work towards filling these seats. Interested parties should go to their state senator for nominations before the vetting process begins.”

By the end of that year, two names were submitted to Governor Phil Murphy’s appointment office for consideration, one being Monmouth University professor John Tiedemann for “at large” seat consideration, while Greg Hueth from the head boat Big Mohawk out of Belmar was recommended directly to Tim Tillman (then director of appointments in the governor’s office) by state senator Robert Singer and assembly representatives Sean Kean and Edward Thomson as potential “sportfish” representative.

Both Commissioner McCabe and Acting Commissioner Bukowski would leave NJDEP before 2021 was out, while Tillman was tapped as Governor Murphy’s deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental affairs.  Meanwhile, the appointment packages for Tiedemann and Hueth seemingly disappeared.

3 Years Later

It’s important to remember that there are just four recreational fishing seats on this critical fisheries council.  Since Capt. Herb is acting Council chair he doesn’t vote unless it’s needed to break a tie.  Thus, with one seat still empty and Chairman Herb not voting, there are only two voting members of the recreational fishing community – one from Cape May County and the other from northern Ocean County – out of eight other members.  On top of that, Dr. Bochenek occupies one of the two “at large” members of the public; but without that second at large seat occupied it theoretically gives the commercial sector a super majority on the Council.

By June of 2021, Shawn M. LaTourette was sworn in as NJDEP Commissioner, as I continued to inquire about missing council seats at many of the Council meetings.  The January 2, 2022 meeting minutes state “Mr. Brust responded that to his knowledge, there have been no volunteers. Mr. Hutchinson asked to clarify that no names are being considered. Mr. Brust said he is not aware of any names being considered but that the process is completed by the Governor’s Office not by the Council or MFA staff.”  As far as “volunteers” there was no mention of the names of Hueth and Tiedemann previously sent to the governor’s appointment office.

At the April 7, 2022 meeting of the Council, the issue of missing appointments was on grand display when the “slot option” for summer flounder was passed by a 6-2 online vote (as per the meeting minutes, “Chairman Herb lost access to meeting due to technical difficulties” which prompted councilman Donnelly to take up the chairman’s gavel).

During the May 12, 2022 meeting of Council, Dr. Bochenek asked about the current vacancies on the Council. “Mr. Brust replied that the Commissioner’s office is working with all of DEP councils to compile current status of appointments and are currently developing a process,” the minutes state, adding “Resumes are requested from everyone. If recently submitted resumes are not sufficient, updates may be required.”

At the July 14, 2022 meeting of Council I asked Dave Golden, Assistant Commissioner for the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife (Division) about the status of the missing seats, to which he replied “they are following procedure and have put out two announcements for Council seat openings.”  Golden went on to explain how diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives could be part of the holdup.  “The governor has put out a policy, maybe in the form of an executive order actually, that there’s this interest in diversifying all council and committees,” Golden explained, adding “We’re being asked to follow through this directive that has come down to attempt to diversify committees and councils.”

It’s possible that none of the possible candidates sent through the NJDEP – and ultimately to the governor’s office – actually passed the DEI litmus test, but no one’s saying anything official on what DEI initiatives really entail.

The government folks got a break from the “heckler” at their September, 2022 meeting when I was in bed with COVID.  However, I was back the saddle for the Council’s November 3, 2022 meeting when Dr. Donnelly inquired about the two vacant seats on Council, to which Brust stated that there are five applicants for the two seats.  As printed in my editorial (Editor’s Log: Holiday Wrap) in the December, 2022 edition of The Fisherman I had recorded Brust as saying, “I have been informed that we have five applicants for the two seats…two or three of the names I know, two or three of them I’m unfamiliar with.”  Brust believed they might all qualify for the open recreational seat.  “I’m not sure we have anyone for the at large seat,” Brust said, adding “At least we have applications, for at least one of the seats.”  Again, that statement was made in December of 2022.

At the very first meeting of 2023 calendar year on January 5 another old business item in the meeting minutes stated “applications for the two vacant positions have been received and are under review to develop a recommendation to the Governor’s office.  Not as many applicants were received as hoped, so the notice of vacancy may be reposted to increase the applicant pool. It is hoped that the vacancies will be filled by the March meeting.”

At that March 2023 meeting (minutes not available), Brust said that potential Council candidates have been collected by the NJDEP and forwarded along to the Governor’s office for review, but the two missing seats remained.

After a long striped bass deliberation during the May 11, 2023 meeting of the Council (minutes not available) Brust once again gave an update on the council vacancies which was essentially no update “as far as I know,” he replied.  I asked if the names which had been presented to the governor and NJDEP commissioner previously were still in play for potential appointment, to which Brust replied “I’m not even sure.”

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) commissioner Shawn LaTourette addresses the media at New Jersey Sea Grant’s annual State of the Shore event in Asbury Park on May 25.

For The Record

On May 25, 2023, I accepted an invitation from New Jersey Sea Grant as a member of the media to attend their annual State of the Shore event in Asbury Park to kick off the Memorial Day weekend.  While most of the assembled media were there to talk about beach quality, coastal storm remediation and the start of the 2023 summer season, the only question I had for the day was directed to Commissioner LaTourette as my first opportunity to address the NJDEP chief directly about the missing seats.

“I’ve had some conversations with some of our friends in the legislature about this and I do think that we’re going to see some movement there,” replied LaTourette on May 25, adding “Unfortunately we don’t, we don’t get to control that because while we staff Council from the perspective, from the department, we don’t get to control what the senate schedule is, and so forth.”

“I have been in communication, as has my chief of staff Jane Rosenblatt with Senator (Robert) Smith on this particular issue, so the more information we get I’m happy to share with you,” LaTourette said as cameras were rolling.

As a follow-up, I pointed out to the commissioner that some members of the “legislature” had already made at least one official recommendation to the governor’s office as early as 2020 with the letter of support for Hueth; LaTourette said that he and NJDEP press office spokesperson Caryn Shinske would put me in touch with the governor’s appointment office, but thus far I’ve not heard back.  I also did not hear back from Senator Smith’s office after having made several attempts for comment by both email and phone.   

As per New Jersey Statutes 23:2B-4 enacted in 1979 the marine fisheries council “shall consist of 11 members, nine of whom shall be appointed by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, of whom four shall represent and be knowledgeable of the interests of sports fishermen, two shall be active commercial fin fishermen, one shall be an active fish processor, and two shall represent the general public; the other two members shall be the chairmen of the two sections of the Shellfisheries Council.”

The statutory quote – “All Council members are appointed by the Governor, with the consent of the Senate” – is key to understanding what’s happened, or perhaps what has failed to happen during the past 4 years of the Murphy administration.  The statute gives the governor sole responsibility of making a council appointment, which generates an official senate response in terms of “consent” through confirmation hearings.  NJDEP and MFA staffers seem to indicate that the bottleneck is coming from within the governor’s office, while the commissioner himself seems to place the blame squarely on the state senate.

In the spring of 2022 when Brust said of council members “The governor appoints them, with senate approval,” I followed up with the NJDEP press office as to the status of the missing seats, to which Shinske replied “Appointments to the Marine Fisheries Council are handled by the Governor’s office, with approval from Senate.”  After multiple attempts to contact the governor’s office directly, I finally received a formal answer in the days leading up to the April 7, 2022 Council meeting which read “The Governor’s Office made seven appointments to the board in the second and third quarters of 2020. There are two vacancies for which candidates are consistently taken under consideration. The board is meeting with a quorum. The Governor’s Office does not comment on specific appointments before they are made.”

When I followed up with the governor’s office about a potential timeframe for filling these vacant public seats, their official reply was “We will not be commenting further at this time.”

As for members of the public being appointed to the Council, New Jersey Statutes 23:2B-4 states, “The Governor’s Appointment’s Office shall annually review Council membership regarding any changes or reappointments.”  To paraphrase former president Harry Truman, the buck stops there, on Governor Murphy’s desk.

The next meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council will be on Thursday, July 13 at 5 p.m. at either the Galloway Township Branch of the Atlantic County Library at 306 East Jimmie Leeds Road in Galloway, or the Stafford Township Administrative Office Building at 260 East Bay Avenue in Manahawkin.  To wee the individual meeting minutes cited in this expose, check out the online version of this article at TheFisherman.com.         – J. Hutchinson



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