State on 2012 Princeton Elections: Consult Your Attorneys

As the two Princetons move forward with a merger, the state is not issuing direction regarding issues raised related to 2012 school or municipal elections. Instead, the state has told local school and municipal officials to seek their lawyers’ advice to figure out how to handle school and municipal elections this year.

Two questions have been raised by local officials and the consolidation commission recently regarding 2012 elections:

1. What election cycle (April 2012, or April 2013) should be used to reconstitute the Princeton Regional Board of Education as the local Princeton Board of Education for the consolidated Princeton? Complicating the issue, new municipal election districts were established in December by the Mercer County Board of Elections. The new election district map went in to effect in December.

2. How will the three-year terms of the new Princeton governing body members be set under the borough form of government? Specifically, how will individual members be assigned initial terms?

The state, which sees itself as a facilitator in the consolidation process, has offered guidance but no answers to both of these questions, leaving it up to the lawyers to decide at the local level. In a letter to the board of education for the Princeton Regional Schools and the governing bodies of the two Princetons, Marc Pfeiffer, deputy director  of the state’s Division of Local Government Services in the Department of Community Affairs, said his office has consulted with legal counsel for the state and the staff of the Division of Elections for guidance on both questions.

“The State has no specific interest as to when the board of education is reconstituted and the resolution of the issue lies with the board of education,” Pfeiffer wrote. “Thus, we advise you that the matter should be put to the board of education attorney to consider and advise the board accordingly.”

If the decision is made to have the election for the new board take place in 2012, Pfeiffer said the Division of Elections can “preserve or archive” the old election pre-2012 districts for Princeton Borough and Princeton Township so that school elections can take place in April 2012 using the pre-2012 municipal voting districts.

“With regard to the assignment of terms for the new borough governing body, here too the decision is left to the advice of the municipal attorneys,” Pfeiffer wrote, pointing officials to existing laws for guidance in reaching a determination, including the Borough Act (N.J.S.A. 40A:60-2(b).

The act reads: “The council shall consist of six members, elected at large, and shall serve for a term of three years and until their successors shall have qualified. Their terms shall be arranged, by lot if necessary, so that the terms of two councilmen shall expire at the end of each year.”

Alternatively, Pfeiffer said the Princetons could consider N.J.S.A.40:84-10 and the “municipal manager” form of government, which provides that newly elected officials in a newly formed governing body have their terms assigned by the number of votes received. Three-year terms would be assigned to the two council members with the first and second highest vote totals in the November election, two-year terms to those with the third and fourth highest vote totals, and one-year terms would be assigned to the those with the second lowest and lowest vote totals.

“We urge the two municipal attorneys to review the law, consult with their clients, and come to a single determination that will be implemented,” Pfeiffer wrote.

Pfeiffer cautioned that the letter should not be construed as legal advice or as representing a formal position of the Department of Community Affairs, but  only as guidance for consideration by local legal counsel.