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Lempert: Recusal on Princeton University Issues Would Be on Case by Case Basis

Lempert
Wilkes

Democratic Princeton Mayoral Candidate Liz Lempert says her husband’s ties to Princeton University should not limit her from voting on all university related issues. Her opponent in the Democratic primary, Kevin Wilkes, is challenging her position.

“I plan to follow the model of former Borough Mayor Barbara Sigmund, who was also married to a tenured professor and who took principled stands on behalf of the community. I will do the same,” Lempert said. “Having a family connection to Princeton University should not disqualify someone from serving successfully as mayor. Anyone who knows me knows that my loyalties are to the people of Princeton and I will fight for what I believe is right for our town.  If the law requires me to recuse myself from specific votes, I will do so on a case by case basis.”

Lempert said she consulted with the Township lawyer when she first considered running for mayor.

“He said the fact that my husband is a tenured professor does not create a wholesale conflict,” Lempert said.

Wilkes, a Princeton alumnus, disagrees and thinks her position is not in line with state law.

“The mayor of Princeton should uphold the highest ethical and legal standards. It is how I have always conducted myself in public service and in business,” he said. “Liz Lempert made the right decision as a Township Committee member recusing herself from issues concerning Princeton University, and I am disappointed she has changed her position for this election. A mayor with a very real conflict of interest with the University poses a very difficult problem for the consolidated Princeton.”

Wilkes argues there could be expensive and extensive legal challenges to any agreements and votes that Lempert is involved in related to the University if she is mayor.

“The financial agreements between the University and the town need to be renegotiated,” Wilkes said. “The mayor needs to lead those tough negotiations and for Princeton to be in the strongest negotiating position, the public needs to have complete confidence that the mayor has only one interest — getting the best deal possible for the town. It is essential for our municipal government to have the legal and ethical authority to negotiate, agree and vote on issues concerning the University.”

But Lempert said there is ample precedent for Princeton mayors having spouses with University ties.

“In addition to Barbara Sigmund, Cate Litvack’s husband was a professor when she served as mayor,” she said. “Dick Woodbridge and Marvin Reed both had spouses who served in the University’s administration when they were mayors. There are likely even more examples.”

Woodbridge, the Republican mayoral candidate whose wife works for the University, said he recalls few actual conflict of interest issues when he served on Borough Council and on Township Committee. He said the decisions should be left up to the municipality’s lawyer, not the elected official in question.

Wilkes said he has a tremendous amount of respect for the former mayors. “Some of those mayors are supporting me, but times have changed, standards have gotten stricter and the local government ethics law has been strengthened since its introduction in 1991,” he said.

He cited The New Jersey Supreme Court case of Griggs vs. Princeton Borough, a lawsuit that was brought to reverse actions taken by the mayor, council and planning board to take over land in the John Witherspoon neighborhood by declaring it blighted and in need of redevelopment. Four members of the council were Princeton University employees, including a football coach, two professors and a public information officer.

The Supreme Court found that even if the individuals acted with integrity and sincerity of purpose, “it is the existence of such conflicts which is decisive, not whether they were actually influential.” The court found that the actions of the Princeton governing body were a conflict, with university employees participating in matters that would directly and indirectly impact the school’s land holdings.

“We realize that the effect of this decision may be to limit the number of employees of Princeton University who may sagely hold certain offices in municipal government,” the Court found. “This could exclude from participation in local government persons unusually qualified for such service; it is safe to assume that such participation by the persons whose interests we hold here to be disqualified was in fact motivated by a high sense of responsibility for community affairs.  But the application of the basic principle here involved cannot depend upon an appraisal of the nature of the institution concerned or of the character of the individual officeholders.”

Lempert is not a direct employee of the University, but Wilkes argues that the Local Government Ethics Law would cover her as a spouse of a University employee.

The Local Government Ethics Law provides that “no local government officer or employee shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties.”

In addition to Lempert and Woodbridge, council candidate Heather Howard also has ties to the University as a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School.

The recusal issue has come up repeatedly over the last several months related to Princeton University development projects. Borough Resident Peter Marks has pointed out that Princeton boards and committees lack consistency in terms of how recusals are handled.

Some officials participate in discussions on issues they must recuse themselves on, but don’t vote. Some officials recuse themselves and leave the room during both the discussion and vote. Some officials participate in subcommittee meetings on the very issues they must recuse themselves on when the full board votes. The Princeton Planning Board chairwoman recuses herself on University related issues, but sits in the audience. When she recuses herself, a board member whose husband is a professor emeritus at the University takes over.

Marks, a member of the Borough’s historic preservation review committee, was told he had to leave the room for a committee meeting to discuss designating the Dinky train station as a historic site because he is a plaintiff in a lawsuit to stop the station from being moved. The lawyer who told him he was required to leave the room works for a law firm that represents NJ Transit on some issues.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Everson408

    I represented several local politicians around the turn of the century. I always explained to them that avoiding the “appearance of impropriety” was nearly as important as avoiding the impropriety itself. Most, although not all, were able to grasp and live by this concept. Sometimes, an uncontrollable lust for political power and glory makes it difficult or impossible for aspiring politicians to do the right thing. In this case, the right thing for Ms. Lempert would be to seek an office where there would not be such a blatant “appearance of impropriety”. That would be taking the high road. Using the excuse “Other politicians in the past have had similar conflicts and have managed to successfully ignore them without suffering any consequences” is a poor justification and exhibits a “sweep the issue under the rug” mentality, it seems to me.

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