The mayoral candidates for the consolidated Princeton faced off in their only debate of the campaign season last night at the Jewish Center. The hour-long event, hosted by the League of Women Voters, was attended by about 150 people.
Liz Lempert, who has two children in the Princeton Public Schools, stressed her work on the Princeton Township Committee over the last four years and her work on consolidation. Dick Woodbridge, a Princeton native who raised three children in Princeton and is an alumnus of Princeton University, stressed his experience as the former mayor of the Township and as a former Borough Council president and said he has served on more then 30 boards and commissions in Princeton over the years.
“I know this town, I love this town, and I understand this town,” said Woodbridge, adding that the town will face critical issues in the coming year that require strong leadership.
“What separates me from my opponent is experience, experience, experience,” Woodbridge said. “You need a leader who will get ahead on traffic issues, who has a history of accomplishing things in a regional context, who will take this town to the next level. If you are having a heart valve replaces, wouldn’t you choose a surgeon who has done it many times before?”
Lempert said she has tackled big problems in the township over the last four years, and has helped with every aspect of the transition to the consolidated Princeton this year. She also claimed that consolidation will make Princeton a more affordable, sustainable community.
“If you believe that consolidation brings with it the chance for a fresh start, and that current experience with results are important to lead the community into our future, I hope you will support me,” Lempert said.
Asked whether party affiliation matters in local elections, Lempert, a Democrat, said national issues translate directly to the local level and local governance. She emphasized sustainability and affordability as core Democratic values that would be important in her work as mayor.
Woodbridge, a Republican, said issues like potholes and traffic are not partisan issues and he does not think national politics should invade local issues. He said he would have preferred a nonpartisan form of government for the consolidated Princeton, and touted bipartisan support for his campaign, saying that more than a third of his campaign team is not Republicans. He said he is voting for two Democrats for the Princeton Council.
The candidates differed on what should be done with the Valley Road School. Woodbridge supports a proposal for a private citizen group to raise money to turn the old school into a community center where nonprofits can rent space for low fees. “There are a lot of successful examples of doing that,” he said. “We could take it over as a community asset, at no expense to the town.”
Lempert said the school is owned by the school district and ultimately the decision rests with school officials. She added that the building is in need of lots of repairs. “Ultimately this building is owned by the taxpayers,” Lempert said. “The school board would be remiss to hand over a public asset to private individuals, no matter how honorable their intentions.”
On the subject of tourism in Princeton, both candidates agreed tourism is an important economic driver for Princeton. Woodbridge proposed creating a position for a director of tourism and economic development. He said the town needs to do a better job of controlling infrastructure and parking issues though.
Lempert said the town needs a better parking and traffic management plan, and needs to figure out a way to balance tourism with residents’ needs.
Asked about taxes, Lempert said consolidation will save the taxpayers money, and said the Township passed a budget with no tax increase for two years in a row already. “I can guarantee that there will be no tax increase in 2013,” she said. Lempert also said officials are tracking two sets of costs this year – transition costs and savings as a result of consolidation.
Woodbridge said the new Princeton should do zero-based budgeting and said even though the Township tax rate was flat this year, the budget went up. The Towship dipped into surplus and depended on a contribution from Princeton University to cover increases. Woodbridge said he would push for more shared services,for grants to build things like bike paths, and would push for regular maintenance of facilities.
Regarding traffic issues, Lempert said the mayors as a group can be powerful in fixing traffic issues in a holistic way, and that real investments need to be made in improvements. “The DOT was trying to respond to a problem on Route 1 — congestion north and south. Their solution was obviously not the right solution. North and south traffic is moving more quickly at the expense of east and west.”
Woodbridge called the Route 1 jughandle experiment a total disaster. “Towns should have been way ahead on this one,” he said. “You have to get ahead of the problem in a regional and aggressive fashion.” Woodbridge said more offsite parking is needed, and that public transportation also needs to be made more attractive to people.
Lempert expressed her disappointment with developer AvalonBay’s plans for a 280-unit apartment complex for the downtown hospital site. “The plans seen don’t meet the spirit of borough zoning for that site,” she said. “The design standards call for permeability. There is no permeability there at all. I hope AvalonBay will listen to the community. The community has been clear. We want them to be a good neighbor if they come to town.”
Woodbridge said major developers like AvalonBay should be required to issue a fiscal impact statement about the potential costs to the community. As a former firefighter, he said the plans for the building are strange. “It’s going to be 4-story high wood structure. That is highly flammable. Here is another case where we should have planned zoning better.”
On the subject of relations with Princeton University, Woodbridge said town officials should meet regularly with university leaders and talk about university plans. “The relationship has deteriorated,” he said. “I have split feelings as an alumnus, and as someone who has lived in town longer than that. We do need to establish dialogue.”
Lempert said the university is an important member of the community and it is important to have a productive relationship with the school. “The university wants that, and it is in the best interest of the town,” she said. “From the Township Committee perspective, we’ve managed to develop that over the past four years..our dialogue is based on mutual respect. Sometimes we have interests that align. We both want this to be a great town…It’s important to have respectful dialogue. You do that by having the door open and understanding that if something happens in the community that is not good for the university, it’s not good for the rest of us, and the other way around because lots of the people who live in the town work for the university.”
Woodbridge questioned whether creating the Morven Tract Historic District is the right move. “I have some misgivings about it, not just because it is hugely unpopular with the neighborhood,” he said. “I didn’t see anyone make a strong case in favor of it at the meeting I attended. It makes sense in areas like Beacon Hill where there is consistent housing. But look how attractive Library Place is now (without the restrictions). The Woodrow Wilson House is a beautiful restoration.”
Lempert said she doesn’t have a problem waiting until after consolidation for the issue to be decided. “Historic preservation has worked well other neighborhoods in town. That does not mean it is a perfect solution in this neighborhood. We need to listen to residents. I am still optimistic there might be compromise and a middle road. The proposal to do a poll is a good start. There is confusion still as to what the designation would mean. It is critical that it be cleared up so we can bring people together.”