A state appeals panel has overturned Gov. Chris Christie's reorganization of New Jersey's affordable housing bureaucracy, saying the governor lacked authority to abolish an independent agency.
Christie issued an executive order in June 2011 that eliminated the state Council on Affordable Housing and transferred its responsibilities to the state Department of Community Affairs.
"We are obviously disappointed with the court decision, which only perpetuates the nightmare New Jersey has endured for decades with the COAH bureaucracy," said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak.
In its ruling, written by Judge Philip S. Charchman, the appellate panel said that the state Reorganization Act "does not grant the Governor the power to abolish a legislatively created, representative, independent authority that is 'in but not of' the Executive Branch or any department in that branch of the government." The panel found that Christie "exceeded his authority under the Reorganization Act in abolishing COAH."
The authority to "abolish COAH rests exclusively with the Legislature," the panel said.
"The framers (of the state constitution) acknowledged the principle that the power to create and abolish such agencies and to alter such functions resided within the legislative process, involving both the Legislature and the Executive."
COAH had been created in the early 1980s by the state Legislature in response to two lawsuits — known as Mount Laurel I and Mount Laurel II — that ruled that towns had a responsibility to provide affordable housing within their borders. The rulings banned so-called exclusionary zoning — which the court defined as zoning designed to limit housing available to low-income residents.
The Legislature created COAH to create and oversee new affordable housing rules, which mandated that towns provide housing. Many suburban communities opposed COAH and it has been a point of political contention for nearly 25 years.
The Fair Share Housing Center, an advocacy group that brought the suit, lauded the appellate panel's ruling.
“The Appellate Division properly found, based on a careful reading of the original intent of New Jersey’s statutes and constitution, that Gov. Christie simply does not have the power to unilaterally abolish independent agencies he doesn’t like," said Associate Director Kevin D. Walsh.
"In doing so, the Court properly protected the independence of agencies such as the Election Law Enforcement Commission, State Ethics Commission, Public Defender, and dozens of other agencies that would have been subject to gubernatorial abolition if the plan for COAH had been upheld. The Court required the diverse interests represented in independent agencies to have a voice, as the Legislature intended.”
Bill Dressel, executive director of the state League of Municipalities, said the ruling does not alter the need for housing reform in New Jersey.
"When legislative efforts reached an impasse, the governor reasonably sought to use his powers under the Reorganization Act," he said. "The reversal by the court does not obscure the need for reform. The only issue is what shape the reform will take.”
State Sen. Ray Lesniak, (D-Union), who was the prime sponsor of the housing legislation vetoed by Christie, backed the court decision and added that any reform plan must meet court muster.
"In order to develop a plan which will stand the test of court scrutiny, we have to work together to create an alternative to COAH that actually works," he said. "We cannot simply throw COAH out the window without first developing a mechanism which seriously addresses the shortage of affordable housing opportunities in New Jersey communities."
What do you think? Does the governor have the power to abolish agencies? Should COAH be abolished? Add your voice in the comments.