Planet Princeton

Councilwoman Raises Concerns about 2013 PILOT Agreement with Princeton University

Butler
Butler

Princeton Councilwoman Jo Butler raised concerns Monday night about the negotiation of the 2013 voluntary payment from Princeton University to the town and said she feels there is a conflict of interest because Mayor Liz Lempert’s spouse works for the University.

Lempert said the agreement for this year for $2.475 million, the same amount given to the two Princetons combined in 2012, is just a carry over from 2012. “The agreement memorializes what was done last year,” she said.

But Butler wanted more information and said the public deserves transparency about how negotiations were conducted.

“She (the mayor) is widely quoted in the newspapers as negotiating an agreement,” Butler said. “It’s not a personal issue. I feel quite strongly that there’s a conflict of interest involved in the negotiation with the University, and I think it’s something we’re going to need to address now. This isn’t the last time this will come up…I didn’t think we had a two year agreement. I never saw a two year agreement.”

Resident Scott Sillars, who sat in the audience at the Council’s public meeting, said Princeton Township negotiated a two-year agreement for 2012 and 2013, but that it was just an oral agreement.

A former Borough Council member contacted Tuesday said they did not recall the two governing bodies jointly negotiating a figure for this year. The official recalled that Borough officials expressed to University officials back in late 2011 that they assumed that the post-consolidation contribution would “at a minimum” be the same amount the school paid to the two municipalities combined before consolidation.

Kristin Appelget, the University’s Director of Community and Regional Affairs said there was a “verbal indication” last year for 2013.

“To say that there was a negotiation, I don’t think is the appropriate term,” Appelget said. “We had indicated at that time our willingness to potentially continue the contribution that we had in calendar year 2012 into 2013. We indicated to Mayor Lempert — myself and Bob Durkee — that we were willing to move forward with that contribution for 2013, and she indicated that she would have the documents put together to put in front of you for your vote.”

Appelget said the University hopes to negotiate a new multi-year agreement after the next University president is hired.

Councilmen Bernie Miller and Lance Liverman tried a few times to call the question and end the discussion.

“If members want to vote no, that is their prerogative,” Miller said. “But the discussion about conflict of interest has no bearing on the question of whether or not the Council accepts the offer of the University.”

Lempert said the Council’s time and energy could be better spent on other issues. “You are certainly welcome to vote however you want. The community voted for consolidations so we can spend our time voting on what we are elected to do.”

Butler said if there was any kind of negotiation by someone who is conflicted on the issue, she did think it has a bearing on the conversation and vote. “I think it sets a precedent and we need some clarity on the issue,” she said. “In all fairness, I asked for this information ahead of time, so I don’t want to be accused of blindsiding anyone tonight.”

“I do think we would like to know who negotiated with whom,” Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said.

Resident Joe Small questioned how an agreement between one of the previous governing bodies could be binding on the new Princeton and said Lempert should not be participating in any discussions with the University about the matter.

“An oral handshake is odd at best,” Small said. “What was the basis for the number chosen? This is not adequate. There is no basis for the number other than `Peasants, this is what we will give to you’ and `Thank you my lord, we will take it’.”

Small said the town is setting a precedent by settling on this year’s figure. “Next year the excuse will be, we have a new president who is busy, so there is no time for this. So you will have three years in a row of an inadequate number. But this is a new government and you have to start a new relationship with the exempt taxpayers in town, who are driving the middle class out of this town.”

Liverman questioned why a resident was allowed to speak after Council members had called for a vote. Butler said a resident should be allowed to comment on an issue of great public interest. Butler then said she also had concerns about whether the agreement was a win-win for the community.

“We are about to undergo the E-5 (arts and transit) project. It will require a lot of displacement,” she said. “The Dinky will be out of order for a long time, Alexander Street will be torn up, and it will be a great inconvenience to the public. My concern still remains that this has been negotiated by someone with a conflict.”

A visibly angered Miller accused her of grandstanding solely for the press. “This is the first business meeting of the new year and I’m wondering how long we are going to go on with `This is not the way did it in the Borough’. The Borough is gone. The Township is gone. This is the new Princeton. I’m very sad to hear an elected official who supported consolidation saying this is the way we did it in the Borough… Secondly, what you’ve done here is conflate two issues for the personal gain of an elected official in terms of getting their name in print. It’s a very, very sad thing and sad way to begin a new government.”

Butler took issue with Miller’s comments and said she mentioned the Borough process for allowing public comment as a point of reference only. She pointed out that right before her comment, Liverman referenced how the Township had handled public comment.

“I don’t need to make a scene to get my name in paper,” Butler said. “I feel strongly there is an ethics violation here, and on that basis I am going to abstain.”

Councilman Patrick Simon said he would vote yes, but said he felt public comment was cut off and the Council should err in the direction of not cutting the public off in the future.

Small said Miller’s personal attack on Butler was uncalled for. “She spoke, to my hearing, out of true feeling and reason, not out of a desire to gain publicity,” Small said. “If we are going to start with this petty fighting — there are so many big issues to deal with. This is no way to run a government, and I’m upset to see these personal attacks.”

The Council voted 4-2 to approve the deal, with Butler and Councilwoman Heather Howard abstaining. Howard works for the University and recused herself, but then also voted to abstain. Lempert did not recuse herself, arguing it was unnecessary since she was not voting. Recusal normally means officials not only don’t vote, but also don’t participate in the discussion or remain on the dias during the debate.

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.

  • open

    Exactly what parts of open discussion and examination of conflict of interest do you not wish to have?

  • Disappointed

    If we didn’t have Jo Butler on the council raising questions, Princeton would really be a banana republic. Guess that’s what some dems want, as long as everything looks nice and smiles up there and votes in unison with little or no discussion just presenting a nice facade while we residents get screwed again. Disappointed our newest council members don’t have much to say and seem to just want to go with the flow. I voted for Patrick Simon because I thought he would be an independent voice. Wont make that mistake again.

  • MargaretL

    Wake up Princeton! Do not let the Jenny Crumiller and Jo Butler circus continue in the new and improved consolidated Princeton. Who will primary them and rescue us all?

  • Alex

    Here we go again! The new Princeton Council, dominated by Ms. Butler and her radical sidekick, is starting up where the old Princeton Borough Council left off—namely, obstructionism and the pushing of personal agendas.

    Why do the elites who dominate Princeton political life keep placing individuals on the Council who are so tied in with the University that they have to recuse themselves on any issue involving “Town and Gown”? This relationship is arguably at the core of life in our community. When it comes to discussion and action on this quintessential topic, the Council must play with only a partial deck and the taxpayers are not fully represented.

  • Harry Meanswell

    If it’s true that “…the discussion about conflict of interest has no bearing on the question of whether or not the Council accepts the offer of the University”…as Bernie Miller suggests then why did Council member Howard recuse herself and abstain? I though Jo Butler’s questions were obvious and appropriate. Miller looked small.

  • Lou

    Conflict of interest does have bearing since the conflicted person should not be part of any discussion in an area where there is a conflict of interest. Sounds like some of these folks need a read on what conflict of interest means.

  • shep

    I have deep concerns about the way our new council is showing lack of concern for citizens at its very beginning. Mr. Miller’s dismissal of discussion on conflict of interest and overbearing manner (which has been displayed before) is not a sign of healthy democracy. Nor is Mr. Liverman’s interest in protocol (citizen speaking after a vote is called) rather than citizen concern–again this has been shown before, in Mr. Liverman’s encouragement of the AvalonBay lawyer at the Planning Board. (The press reported that a Planning Board member, likely he, afterwards told AvalonBay it would have a good legal case if it sued the town–not a responsible way to safeguard public funds).

  • The obvious implication is that they stand to gain in some way from the agreement, although having grown up in America I still believe in the concept of innocent until proven guilty.

    It is stunningly clear that the word “Transparency” has a completely different meaning than the one I am familiar with.

  • “But the discussion about conflict of interest has no bearing on the
    question of whether or not the Council accepts the offer of the
    University”

    Wow. I would really like to know if this is:

    1) Evidence that the council does not understand the reason “conflicts of interest” are to be avoided.

    2) Evidence that the council is under impression that their opinions override the opinions of the electorate.

    3) Evidence that the council really believes they can do whatever they wish.

    or

    4) Evidence that the council believes that the residents of Princeton are too stupid to understand what is going on.

  • SFB

    Wow, that’s some pretty unseemly bickering right there. Why were Lempert and Miller so reluctant to answer questions about this important issue?

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