The lawyer for the town of Princeton has issued an opinion that Councilwoman Heather Howard can’t participate in negotiations with Princeton University regarding payments in lieu of taxes because she is employed by the school.
The written opinion, written by town lawyer Ed Schmierer, outlines the town’s conflict of interest policy for two pages. Then Schmierer gives a brief explanation of one paragraph as to why Howard must recuse herself. Howard teaches in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
“As an employee of Princeton University, and guided by the decision in the matter of Wyzykowski v. Rizas, 132 N.J. 509 (1990), I have concluded that Councilwoman Heather Howard should not participate on behalf of Princeton in discussions related to the Princeton University Annual Voluntary Contribution,” Schmierer writes. “By recusing herself from the participation, any appearance of an `indirect personal interest’ will be avoided.”
The council held a special closed session tonight to discuss the negotiations with the university.
Schmierer first said at a council meeting last week that Howard must recuse herself from negotiations with the university, but he did not provide a written opinion. The town’s conflict of interest policy states that the conflict of interest lawyer will issue a timely written opinion. Schmier said he could not provide it that night because Howard had been away on vacation.
The brief opinion that Howard must recuse herself stands in stark contrast to the lengthy opinion he issued last month saying Mayor Liz Lempert can take part in negotiations with Princeton University even though her husband is a professor at the school. 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.
“Not only is the probability of any conflict remote or insignificant, but as a practical matter any conflict is non-existent,” he wrote in that opinion.
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.
Regarding the mayor negotiating the University’s annual payment in lieu of taxes to the town, Schmierer has argued 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.”
“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 has also argued 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.”
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 at the Department of Community Affairs.