Feyl is Highlands Head, To Quit Freeholders
Christie-backed appointment was expected, but still made in close vote
As broadly expected, Morris County Freeholder Gene Feyl has been hired as Highland Council's executive director, meaning he'll need to leave his position on the county governing body and drop out of the race for re-election.
That means the crowded primary race for the freeholder board will become ever-so-slightly roomier—though there's still a long list of candidates for the three open seats.
Feyl had filed a petition to run in the Republican primary, though he made clear that if put on the Highlands Council, he knew he'd have to drop out. Other Republicans seeking the seats: incumbent and Freeholder Director William Chegwidden of Wharton; Florham Park Councilman Charles Germershausen; Morristown Councilwoman Alison Deeb; Parsippany Councilman John Cesaro; former Mount Olive Mayor David Scapicchio; and former Washington Township Councilman John Krickus; Jeremy Jedynak; of Rockaway Township; France; and former Denville Mayor Ted Hussa. The Democrats are: Quattrone of Montville; Wasim Kahn of Parsippany; Toshiba Foster of Morristown; and Joy Singh of Morris Plains.
The appointment will take effect after Gov. Chris Christie's review of the meeting minutes, sometime in the next 10 business days, according to a statement from the council.
“I strongly believe and have a high level of confidence in the fact that Gene can not only perform the duties as executive Ddrector, but will excel in the position,” Jim Rilee, Highlands Council chairman, said in a statement from the group. “Gene is well-versed to not only lead the Highlands Council Staff, but to deal with the public and the advocates of varying and diverse opinions of our Highlands Community and is also capable of taking direction and performing the duties that this Council will require of him.”
Feyl will receive an annual salary of $116,000.
Rilee pointed to Feyl's background as a longtime businessman and public official in the statement from the Highlands Council.
“Gene started the first Open Space plan in Denville that eventually secured over 1,200 acres in open space acquisitions,” Rilee said.
The removal of former Highlands director Eileen Swan and the Gov. Chris Christie's growing influence over the council have caught criticism from some environmental groups—worried Christie would seek to dismantle the same sort of environmental protections the council is tasked with overseeing—and good government advocates. In a column on NJ Spotlight Thursday, Michael Catania contrasted what he called "back-room" process for picking Feyl with the national search conducted by then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's administration for a Pinelands Commission head.
"If Feyl is appointed, as is widely expected, he deserves at least a little sympathy," Catania wrote. "He seems like a decent guy, with a pretty good open space record in Morris County. And I can’t help but think that whoever is appointed as the new executive director deserves to be chosen by a genuine competition, rather than as the beneficiary of a back-room deal. This is a tough enough job to handle without having to start out that way."
In a column for Patch, longtime Morris County journalist Colleen O'Dea said back in March the governor was exercising a worrisome degree of influence over an independent agency. O'Dea's column is a weekly feature on Patch sites in Morris County, but does not represent the views of Patch as an organization or its leadership.
Removing Swan and naming Feyl to the executive director spot, O'Dea wrote, "serves many purposes. It gets rid of the director the administration doesn’t want and installs someone who can be controlled, at the same time rewarding a loyal Republican who would otherwise face a serious primary battle. As a bonus benefit for Feyl, it would mean a huge boost to his public pension. And despite this being a democracy, it all happens behind the scenes via phone calls that sources say pressure council members to make the change."
Feyl, in comments made to the Daily Record following the close vote to appoint him, said he appreciates the magnitude of his new roll—overseeing two-thirds of the state's water supply.
“I want you to know … I get it, and I take that very seriously,” he told the Daily Record.