The consolidation transition task force voted Wednesday night to recommend that a consultant and a lawyer be hired to help the group conduct its work. The governing bodies of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township must approve the recommendations.
The task force has chosen the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) to serve as its project consultant. The New York-based Center for Governmental Research, the same organization that served as a consultant to the joint consolidation and shared services commission, will be paid up to $62,000 for consulting services under the task force proposal.
William Kearns has been selected to serve as the task force’s lawyer. Kearns, a senior partner in the Willingboro-based firm Kearns, Vassallo, & Kearns, is the general counsel for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities and is the municipal lawyer for Florence Township. He has served as municipal attorney for Willingboro Township and as a lawyer for the zoning and planning boards of several municipalities. He is also the attorney for two municipal joint insurance funds.
Asked about the task force’s initial budget of $50,000, Chairman Mark Freda said the budget is not firm and the governing bodies of the two Princetons are expecting the task force to come back with more concrete figures. “I don’t believe $50,000 was a hard cap,” Freda said.
At the urging of Freda and some other task force members, after a lengthy debate the task force voted to follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act for both task force meetings and all subcommittee meetings. Some members questioned whether the subcommittees need to follow the act, which allows public bodies to go in to closed session to discuss certain issues like litigation.
Task force member Jim Levine questioned whether the public should participate in all the discussions at the subcommittee level.
“Ultimately the subcommittees make recommendations to the task force and the task force makes recommendations to the two governing bodies,” Levine said. “That’s still two levels away from a vote…I don’t think the public interest is served to have all the ideas out there being discussed if they are not ultimately going to be recommended. If there are discussions about how to organize a particular group, that could really put employees and the public in a very awkward position when in fact the recommendation is nowhere near what the points were that were raised. I think we will come to less good decisions if there is not a chance for people to freely discuss ideas that just would not be discussed in a public forum, things that would not rise to the level of personnel.”
Levine suggested that meetings could be open when the discussion reaches a point where recommendations are put forward to the public, but that “the subcommittees have chance to roll up their sleeves and work hard on issues without having to pull any punches with anything that is distracting to employees and the public.”
But task force member Linda Mather disagreed, saying similar concerns were raised by officials when the Open Public meetings Act was created.
“I also think it is very hard to defend that position, Jim, to the people we are representing in the town,” Mather said, adding that she wants the town to avoid any lawsuits and wants the task force to embody the spirit of the law.
Kearns, who was sitting in the audience, said technically the Open Public Meetings Act does not apply to bodies that don’t have the power to spend public funds.
“But if you look at the resolution that creates you, you are an agency of the two towns, and clearly in the resolution you are expected to subject yourselves to the Open Public Meetings Act,” he said. “Practically the subcommittees are not voting and are not subject to the act, but you can establish a policy and do as much as can be done in an open forum. You may need to discuss some personnel or labor contract issues in executive session. Obviously in terms of anything from the subcommittees to the task force, you need to be open on your part.”
Township Mayor Chad goerner said all of the consolidation commission subcommittee meetings were open to the public. Very rarely the subcommittees went in to closed session, he said. Township Committeeman Bernie Miller said he didn’t think all discussions need to take place in public. “To try to stipulate that they are all open is to unnecessarily tie the hands of the people working on the task force,” he said. “Some discussions must by their very nature take place behind closed doors…there needs to be some shield between the task force subcommittees. At some point we are going to find we do have to go in to executive session to talk freely.”
The task force also reviewed subcommittees, subcommittee mission statements, membership, volunteers, and the names of liaisons assigned from the consolidation commission to each task force subcommittee. Staff members will also be assigned to subcommittees.
Task force and subcommittee meetings will be posted on the Center for Governmental Research website at www.cgr.org/princeton/transition/.
Township Chief Financial Officer Kathy Monzo asked about staff appointments to subcommittees. “It seems when you are talking about appointments to subcommittees, staff are being treated differently than other appointments,” she said. “Are there going to be staff appointments tonight? A lot of subcommittees have already started meeting.”
Township Administrator Jim Pascale said staff appointments would be made by the the end of Thursday.
Monzo also asked for clarification on the Open Public Meetings Act and what can and can not be done in a closed session. “What could you possibly legally talk about in closed session that would have to exclude staff members?” she asked.