By Roger Martindell
The Princeton Council’s pending draft conflict of interest policy represents a forward-looking step to deal with a thorny issue. But before the Council moves to adopt the policy, which it proposes to do on Monday, May 13, it should do more to hear from the community, especially about the ethics review process and what constitutes an appropriate ethical standard in relations between municipal officials and local private educational institutions.
The draft policy, presented by a respected corporate attorney chosen by the mayor and vetted by the municipal attorney chosen by the Council, is a nine-page document that contemplates a process for identifying, disclosing, and deciding conflicts questions.
There are at least two issues on which the proposal is mostly silent and with respect to which the public deserves greater opportunity to comment. Such comment cannot occur in the usual brief hearing process that Council affords the public. Therefore, the Council would do well to have more extended hearings on a conflicts policy over a longer period of time than the hearing contemplated for Monday, May 13. Such hearings might be conducted by a task force or ad hoc committee created for the specific purpose.
The first issue is that the proposal leaves ethics decisions regarding the conduct of Council members and the employees they oversee to Council members and Council-appointed attorneys. That, on its face, raises serious questions about the independence of the review process.
The second issue is that consideration of the proposed policy has not drawn into the discussion in a substantial way the most likely source of future conflicts of interest: namely, the relationship between the municipality and its several private educational institutions, including especially Princeton University. Those educational institutions are the largest landowners and developers, largest employers, largest taxpayers, and largest non-taxpayers in the community. Their interests are those most likely to pose conflicts for municipal officials in the future.
A case in point is the present mayor, whose husband is a Princeton University professor, and whose family income appears to be mostly dependent on the University. Under the present proposal, the mayor could sit on the Council committee that deals with conflict questions and has the power to appoint the attorney, subject to Council approval, who would work with the committee. Is that really an “independent” review of a conflicts question involving the University?
A state statutory standard, the Local Government Ethics Law, already sets standards for local officials in the discharge of their ethical duties. There is no need for the Council to re-invent the wheel on ethics issues unless it is going to go further than the minimum standard set by the state. If it is going to go further, and it should, then it should have a full, open, and continuing discussion within the community regarding the relationship between the town’s government and its biggest private educational institutions, how the body politic views that relationship, and how the body politic perceives issues of conflict arising out of that relationship. In the absence of extensive hearings on these matters, no conflicts policy adopted by the Council will represent a meaningful improvement over the standard already set by the Local Government Ethics Law.
Before acting on any proposed conflicts policy, the Council should seek to inform itself more broadly about ethical concerns arising out of relations between private educational institutions and the municipality. Only through extensive public hearings, perhaps convened by a task force or ad hoc committee, can the Council articulate a community standard for resolution of ethical questions that is stricter than the State’s minimum standard and provide for a more independent review process than appears in the current proposal.
Mr. Martindell is a lawyer and former Princeton Borough councilman.