Ed Schmierer, the lawyer for the town of Princeton, says Mayor Liz Lempert can take part in negotiations with Princeton University regarding payments in lieu of taxes even though her husband is a professor at the school.
“I am of the opinion that Mayor Lempert does not have to disqualify herself from participating with other representatives of Princeton in discussions with the Trustees of Princeton University with regard to the University’s Annual Voluntary Contribution,” Schmierer wrote in a memo to the mayor and Princeton Borough Council this week that was obtained by Planet Princeton. “Not only is the probability of any conflict remote or insignificant, but as a practical matter any conflict is non-existent.”
Schmierer, who earns several hundred thousands of dollars a year as the town attorney, was selected to be the conflict of interest attorney for the town earlier this year after the town adopted a lengthy and controversial policy on conflicts of interest that some good government advocates say does not bring much clarity to the issue. The issues will likely be discussed at the Princeton Borough Council meeting Monday night at 7 p.m. in the main meeting room of the town municipal building at 400 Witherspoon Street.
Regarding the mayor negotiating the University’s annual payment in lieu of taxes to the town, Schmierer argues that case law establishes “that not all interests are disqualifying interests and that even alleged appearances of conflict must have some reasonable basis and be more than a remote, significant or speculative possibility.”
Lempert’s husband , who is a tenured faculty member at Princeton University, was promoted to a full professorship this June, about six months into her four-year term as mayor. Schmierer argues that Lempert’s participation in the discussions with Princeton University will not trigger a situation requiring disqualification due to direct monetary interest, indirect monetary interest, direct personal interest, or indirect personal interest. Councilwoman Heather Howard also wroks for Princeton University.
“As the chief executive officer of the newly created Princeton and with a four-year term within which to serve, it is important to the discussions which will take place concerning the Princeton University annual voluntary contribution that there be some continuity with the leadership of Princeton,” Schmierer wrote. “Serving in her executive capacity for her term, that continuity will be provided. The fact that her husband is a tenured professor, who does not stand to benefit in any manner from the voluntary agreement to be negotiated with Princeton University cannot reasonably be deemed to have any influence on the mayor’s judgment. Further, there are no actions that the mayor could take that would provide for a benefit, salary or otherwise, to her husband and/or his department. Without such a reasonable possibility of resulting in the mayor departing from her sworn duty, any interest that may exist or appear to exist is to remote and insignificant to disqualify the mayor from carrying out her executive duties.”
Schmierer also argues that because people in the past with potential conflicts negotiated with Princeton University, that makes it okay for Lempert to do so, an argument Lempert herself has also made.
“The late Barbara Boggs Sigmund served successfully for a number of years as the mayor of the Borough of Princeton while her husband Paul was a tenured professor at the University. Mayor Marvin Reed also served for a number of years as the Mayor of the Borough of Princeton while his wife Ingrid was a non-tenured member of the Princeton Woodrow Wilson School faculty,” Schmierer wrote. “Both Mayors Sigmund and Reed, in their capacity as the chief executive officer for the then Borough of Princeton, were called upon to interact with the Trustees of Princeton University on a variety of issues. They were able to successfully navigate their responsibilities as elected Princeton officials without any hint of conflict while dealing with the University. We should all be confident that Mayor Lempert will follow in that tradition and appropriately represent Princeton in discussions with the University over their annual voluntary contributions to the community.”
Some good government advocates say that standards have evolved over the years and the state’s Local Government Ethics Law has been strengthened since its introduction in 1991.
The state’s 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.”
Citizens who think an official is violating the local government ethics law can file an ethics complaint with the state’s Local Finance Board in the Department of Community Affairs.
Schmierer argues in his memo that as with other situations, there are no “bright-line rules” providing that such a situation as the negotiations with Princeton University would automatically create a conflict of interest for an elected official or an Employee.
Many experts believe is not necessary to prove that the special interest actually influenced the official’s decision, as long as it creates a possible conflict .Last year a Borough attorney argued that elected officials who work for Princeton University or have spouses who work for the school should recuse themselves from issues related to the school. When Lempert was a Princeton Township Committee member, she always recused herself on Princeton University issues.
The landmark New Jersey Supreme Court case about conflicts of interest and officials was a Princeton case. Griggs vs. Princeton Borough was 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.”