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Former Commissioner of Environmental Protection Bob Shinn. (Photo: New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection).

Bob Shinn, ex-DEP commissioner, assemblyman, dies at 85

South Jersey Republican served as Hainesport mayor, Burlington freeholder, and Pinelands Commission vice chairman

By David Wildstein, May 08 2023 5:57 pm

Robert C. Shinn, Jr., a respected former assemblyman and Commissioner of Environmental Protection, died on May 5.  He was 85.

Shinn was a staunch advocate of the environment, a legislative expert on solid waste issues, and a proponent of the recycling of rubber tires.

Shinn began his career in government in 1956 when he became the Hainesport municipal treasurer and sought public office for the first time in 1959 when he won a seat on the Rancocas Valley Regional school board.

In 1967, Shinn was elected to the Hainesport Township Committee, ousting Democratic incumbent James Hesson by roughly 275 votes, a margin that was about 68% of the vote.  Hesson had scored an upset victory on the coattails of Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide win in 1964.

He was re-elected by a 2-1 margin in 1970 against Democrat Rex Bingham.

Shinn was elected mayor in 1973, replacing another Republican, Kenneth Street.   He was re-elected that year without opposition.

Burlington County Republicans picked Shinn to run for freeholder in 1975 on a slate with incumbent Michael Conda.  They defeated Democratic incumbent William Szychoski and his running mate, Westampton Mayor Alfred Walker, by about 3,000 votes.

The two were re-elected in 1979 by over 7,000 votes against Democrats Robert Broderick and James Ayrer, and again in 1982 against Democrats Frank Caulfield and Paul Ansaldo, by about 4,000 votes.

Gov. Brendan Byrne, a Democrat, nominated Shinn to serve on the New Jersey Pinelands Commission in 1977.  He served there until 1985 and was the longtime vice chairman.

The death of Edwin Forsythe (R-Moorestown), a seven-term congressman and former Senate President, in 1984 triggered several moves among Burlington County Republicans.  State Sen. Jim Saxton (R-Mount Holly) ran for Congress, and after his election, Assemblyman C. William Haines (R-Mount Laurel), replaced Saxton in the Senate after a complicated special election.

Shinn won the backing of J. Garfield DeMarco, then the Burlington County GOP chairman, to take Haines’ Assembly seat.   Democrats picked former Woodland school board member Marvin Matlack to take on Shinn against Will Monk, a 22-year-old Republican and now a school board member in Mount Holly.

In a February special election,  Shinn defeated Matlack by 4,406 votes, 77%-23%, for the 8th district Assembly seat.

Shinn and his running mate, Assemblyman Harold “Doc” Colburn, Jr. (R-Moorestown), easily won re-election in 1985, 1987, 1989 (a strong Democratic year), 1991 and 1993.

While serving the legislature, the Burlington freeholder board named him to supervise the startup of a new landfill.

In 1988, Assembly Speaker Chuck Hardwick named Shinn to serve as chairman of the Assembly Sold Waste Management Committee.

After Democrats captured control of the State Assembly in 1989, Shinn was named Assistant Minority Leader.

Two years later, when Republicans recaptured the Assembly, Shinn was elected Majority Conference Leader.

Following her election as governor in 1993, Republican Christine Todd Whitman nominated Shinn to serve in her cabinet as Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.  He served in the post for eight years.

His nomination was praised by environmental activists.

“He knows more than just bird and fish,” said Clean Ocean Action spokesperson Cindy Zipf.

But Shinn was also charged with reducing bureaucratic regulations at the DEP.

By the end of his term, he faced criticism from New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel, for a bad record on enforcement.

“Bob Shinn is a true champion of the environment,” Whitman said in a 2017 statement.  “One of the best decisions I made as governor was to ask him to serve as commissioner of DEP. An innovative thinker, a visionary leader, and a trusted adviser, he played a key role in making sure that, when he concluded his eight years as commissioner, our state’s air was cleaner, our water purer, and our land better protected than it was when he took the helm at DEP.”

Shinn served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War as an aircraft mechanic.

He is survived by his wife, Paula, his daughter, Debbie, two step-children, a grandson,and his half-sister.

A viewing is set for May 18 from 12-3 PM at the Perinchief Chapels in Mount Holly, followed by a funeral service at 3 PM.

He was frequently confused with Robert K. Shinn, a Democrat who had served as mayor of Edgewater Park.

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