Two recent decisions by state leaders have some environmental groups worried that the Christie administration is putting business interests ahead of environmental concerns.
In one case, environmental advocates point to a decision to reopen the Office of Dispute Resolution, which faced heavy criticism under Gov. Christie Whitman. Companies can appeal to the office to settle disagreements over environmental regulations through alternative dispute resolution.
The second issue cited by some environmental advocates as problematic was a request for proposals issued by the Treasury seeking consultants to review applications and draft permits for land-use programs.
Regarding the Office of Dispute Resolution, the state Department of Environmental Protection announced in a news release last month the creation of the office "to help find common ground between the department and the regulated community to prevent differences from becoming full-blown legal battles."
"This office will head off potentially costly and lengthy litigation that may not have been needed had both sides simply met first to work out their differences," DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said in the release. "In finding common ground, however, we will not compromise protection of the environment."
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said Tina Layre, director of the Office of Dispute Resolution, had had 11 cases referred to her since the office opened in September. He characterized the cases as small, primarily concerning land use, as well as a couple of enforcement actions and a water case.
Some environmental advocates say they fear the office will do little more than let those who violate environmental regulations off the hook.
"This was considered one of the biggest abuses at DEP in the Whitman years, allowing companies that deliberately violated environmental law to get away with it," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "We believe the same thing will happen yet again, putting the environment and public health and safety at risk."
Tittel said that under Whitman, enforcement actions against environmental violators dropped dramatically after the creation of the Office of Dispute Resolution.
Bill Wolfe, director of the New Jersey Chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said dispute resolution was particularly prone to abuse because it was designed to overrule the judgment of DEP staff.
"The danger comes not only in using politics and intervention from above to overrule the technical judgment of staff, but when those meetings go down, there's not really accountability or transparency," Wolfe said. "If it were on the record with full disclosure, there would be an entirely different dynamic."
Hajna said settlement agreements would be made available to the public by the DEP.
Not all environmental advocates are on the same page. Dave Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Foundation, which endorsed Christie, a Republican, over incumbent Democrat Jon S. Corzine in the last election, said that while the Office of Dispute Resolution under Whitman was used to undermine environmental law, the Christie administration has assured the foundation that that will not be the case this time around.
Pringle said his organization was willing to withhold judgment until the evidence was in.
Business advocates welcome the new office.
"This office will theoretically allow for a mechanism for a company outside the agency with a problem to come together and avoid going to court and settle their disputes through this new office," said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, which represents chemical and pharmaceutical companies. "It's clear the Christie administration recognizes the DEP has been a contributor to New Jersey's very bad reputation as to a negative business climate. I think they're trying as many things as they can to reorganize DEP, and I think dispute resolution is a step in the right direction."
Dave Brogan, vice president for environmental policy for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said the office would help cut litigation costs for the state while helping to reach settlements faster.
On the issue of private consultants to deal with land-use permits, the DEP made no formal statements about how or when such consultants would be used, and the issue came to light only when environmental groups discovered the request for proposals (RFP). The request states that $200,000 to $600,000 is expected to be available in the current fiscal year for the consultants.
The Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee has scheduled a hearing on the request for Thursday.
Michael Catania, president of the nonprofit organization Conservation Resources and a former deputy commissioner at the DEP, said the request raises some troubling questions, including whether the DEP is trying to quietly expand the privatization of permitting responsibilities.
"I am very concerned that if you're going to do this, instead of having a public debate, just doing it by posting something on a Treasury website really makes it look like you're ashamed of it and you're trying to hide it," Catania said.
Environmental advocates say the request for proposals could mean that consultants being paid by developers would draft and review land-use permits, possibly presenting a direct conflict of interest.
"The agency's job is to enforce the law; the office's job is not to enforce the law," said Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey. "I think the mission of that office is to find ways to allow regulated agencies to pay fines and comply with the law. There is a process in place for disputes, and we should follow that."
Hajna said the DEP had made no formal announcement because it only intends to use the consultants if a backlog of land-use work develops. With the building industry hit hard by the recession, though, there is no need for those consultants now, he said.
"We put out the RFP at this time just to be ready when the economy turns around," Hajna said. "We want to be able to assure that we are able to continue reviewing, processing applications in a timely fashion. It's not something we're anticipating using any time soon."
Catania was skeptical of that.
"It's a lot of work to pull together an RFP if they're not planning to do something about it," he said. "It seems it's an option they're exploring, and it has some serious implications."
DEP staff members are concerned the administration could be moving toward privatizing jobs, which could jeopardize environmental protections, said Adam Liebtag, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1036, which represents many DEP staff members.
"It is bad public policy to let the same entity fill out an application, certify that it is accurate and will cause no environmental harm, and then stamp it 'approved,' " Liebtag said. "That's taking the DEP totally out of the equation, and allows self-policing and self-approval by a party with a vested interest who will profit from the permit."
The Christie administration has talked about privatization as a way to make government more efficient, but it has yet to name specific targets.
On the request for proposals for land-use consultants, too, business advocates applaud the administration.
"In light of the 'Great Recession,' any efforts to streamline our often duplicative and overlapping system are greatly appreciated by the home-building community," said Stefanie A. Riehl, director of government affairs for the New Jersey Builders Association. "We think it is possible to strike a balance between the state's environmental and economic needs, and believe that the efforts by the DEP take us a step closer toward reaching that equilibrium."
The Christie administration has made it clear the DEP is to become more efficient and customer-friendly.
On Thursday, Martin, who came to the DEP after 25 years at the business and technology consulting firm Accenture Ltd., announced a "transformation plan" to steer the department's efforts.
"This document establishes the process to transform the DEP into a more streamlined organization that maximizes the abilities of our fiscal and human resources to protect New Jersey's environment and natural resources," Martin said. "For the sake of both the environment and economy, we cannot continue to operate as we always have. We need to take bold steps to change how the DEP operates."