The mayors of the two Princetons have asked the citizen members of the transition task force, all task force subcommittees, and the consolidation commission to sign a document stating that they and their family members will not seek contracts or employment in the united Princeton for two years.
Sent by e-mail yesterday with a signing deadline of next Tuesday after being discussed by several elected officials via phone calls, the request has caused a heated debate among officials and some transition task force members, with task force chairman Mark Freda questioning the process, as well as asking why officials are excluded from the conflict of interest issue.
“The two mayors have acted unilaterally,” he said. “The new policy has not been discussed by either governing body in public and the task force is the creation of the two municipalities. The task force can’t act without issues begin discussed and agreed to at public meetings. This should be discussed in public.”
Freda said the document covers a broad range of people, but that elected officials and employees are excluded from having to sign the conflict of interest statement, when many elected officials, along with other candidates for local office this year, serve on the task force and its subcommittees.
“Why are only citizen members of the consolidation commission and task force held to the standards?” Freda said. “The document was not well thought out, and was rushed without public discussion.”
Freda said the document implies that individual members of the task force and subcommittees could sway the process to give individuals an advantage in the future. The citizen members are making recommendations, he said, when in the end the people making the decisions are the elected officials. “The only people who can sway the process are elected officials,” Freda said. “The double standard seems out of line.”
Freda, a former Borough councilman who recently served as the Borough’s emergency management director, said he is not aware of members of other Borough and Township boards having to sign such statements saying they will not try to become municipal employees for some set period of time. Normally he said people recuse themselves on issues where there is a potential conflict of interest. But he said he does not have an issue with signing such a document if it were discussed, worded correctly and applied consistently.
He also added that rumors that he wants the business administrator job come Jan. 1 are untrue.
“There is no factual basis to that,” he said. “I have no intention or desire to be the administrator come Jan. 1 of 2013. With the new position I just took with a large company in New York, there is no reason to believe I’d be interested in that position in the foreseeable future. If that job opened up in a few years, might I think of becoming a municipal employee again? Maybe, I don’t know.”
Freda has served as a community volunteer for more than 35 years as a member of the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, a volunteer firefighter, and a founding member of The Spirit of Princeton. He was a Borough Council member for 13 years and a Borough empoyee for two years.
“I love this town,” he said. “This process is too important to me not to try to help us get it right. I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines without at least offering to help. And a number of people, including elected officials, asked me to volunteer to help with this. We are moving away from the Borough versus Township mentality to a `we are all one’ mentality; and I think I can help get us there as part of the group of volunteers working on the transition task force.”
In a phone interview today, Borough Mayor Yina Moore said it is her understanding that the conflict of interest statement was possibly in the works for the past two weeks because some township employees brought the issue up at staff meetings. She has suggested that Borough and Township officials discuss the issue in public at the next joint meeting April 3. “The basic principle of the statement is a good principle,” she said, adding that officials should make sure the policy is vetted and applied consistently.
On the issue of elected officials being excluded, Moore argued that the transition task force duties are not related to governance.
“Personnel issues are pretty much part of the task force, which will be making recommendations,” she said. “I don’t see that as being the same.”
Moore said the Borough attorney is going to research the issue. The conflict of interest statement was drafted by Township Lawyer Ed Schmierer. The agreement and his memo follow.
TOWNSHIP OF PRINCETON
TO: Mark Freda, Chair, and Members of the Transition Task Force Members
Anton Lahnston, Chair, and Members of the Consolidation/Shared
Services Study Commission
FROM: Mayor Yina Moore, Princeton Borough
Mayor Chad Goerner, Princeton Township
DATE: March 20, 2012
SUBJECT: Volunteer certification re: conflict of interest avoidance
The work of the Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission and that of the Transition Task Force and its various sub-committees will shape the new Princeton for many years to come. Therefore, it is critical that we avoid any appearance of conflict or non-objectivity whatsoever. Accordingly we are asking all members of the Transition Task Force and the members of its various subcommittees to sign the certification below agreeing to the following:
No member or member’s immediate family be permitted to be employed by Princeton for two (2) years following the creation of the single Princeton.
No member or member’s immediate family be permitted to obtain a contract to provide services to the new Princeton for two (2) years following the creation of a single Princeton.
This is consistent with New Jersey’s Local Government Ethics Law and weíve attached a legal opinion from our attorney for your reference. Thank you very much for your anticipated cooperation.
I agree to the above.
Name (print) Signature Committee name (i.e. TTF, Sub-committee)
To: Princeton Township Committee
From: Edwin W. Schmierer, Esq.
Princeton Township Attorney
Date: March 19, 2012
Re: Consolidation Process: Avoidance of Conflicts of Interest
The consolidation process is well underway. It has been recommended that the Township establish guidelines which will avoid any potential conflict of interest or appearance of conflict of interest as work continues on the consolidation of the two (2) Princetons.
In my opinion, the guidelines which should be established are as follows:
I. No member or a member’s immediate family* of the Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission or the Transition Task Force (“TTF”) or any subcommittee of the TTF shall be permitted to be employed by “Princeton” for two (2) years following the creation of the single municipality or until January 1, 2015.
II. No member or a member’s immediate family of the Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission or the TTF or any of its subcommittees shall be permitted to obtain a contract to provide services to the single municipality “Princeton” for two (2) years following the creation of the single municipality or until January 1, 2015.
For the purpose of this policy, those running for office or elected to serve on the new governing body (Mayor and Council) shall not be deemed subject to this policy. This policy would likewise not be applicable to any current Borough or Township employee whose spouse or a member of the employee’s immediate family is serving on the Study Commission, TTF or TTF subcommittee.
Adoption of this policy would be consistent with the provisions of the New Jersey Local Government Ethics Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.2 which provides the following in order to ensure that conflicts and appearances of conflicts are avoided at the local government level:
No local government officer or employee shall undertake any employment or service, whether compensated or not, which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties.
It is suggested that the two (2) year prohibition of obtaining employment for any member or a member’s immediate family follow a similar guideline in the New Jersey Conflicts of Interests Law, N.J.S.A. 52:13D-12(a). While this State law is not applicable to local government officials, I do believe it provides a good guide and time frame in order to avoid a conflict of interest.
The work currently being done by TTF and its subcommittees involves recommendations which will shape the single “Princeton” for many years to come. The Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission remains constituted and is also serving as an advisory body for the purposes of consolidation (see N.J.S.A. 40:43-66.57(c)). It is absolutely critical to the process of consolidation that any appearance of conflict be avoided. Under no circumstance, would we want to diminish the public confidence in the consolidation process. Likewise, it is extremely important to avoid any appearance of non-objectivity on the part of the members of either body as recommendations are being made for the new “Princeton”.
cc: James J. Pascale, Administrator
William John Kearns, Jr., Esq., TTF Attorney
*The term “member of immediate family” shall have the same definition as set forth in the Local Government Ethics Law: the spouse or dependent child of a member of the Study Commission, TTF or TTF Subcommittee residing in the same household.