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.