Anyone expecting a lot of debate among Princeton Council candidates last night at the public forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and Princeton Community Television would have been somewhat disappointed.
The candidates, who are vying for two three-year terms on the Council, agreed on a variety of issues, including holding down property taxes and encouraging better communication with the Latino community. Police oversight and the relationship between the town and Princeton University were the two main issues where the candidates expressed differences of opinion.
Republican challenger Fausta Rodriguez Wertz questioned how the town got into the situation it did, with seven officers suing the municipality, police department, and former police chief David Dudeck for sexual harassment and discrimination.
“I have many, many questions,” Rodriguez said. “Why weren’t the claims investigated and reviewed? Do we have to pay for Chief Dudeck’s legal fees?”
Incumbent Democratic council members Jenny Crumiller and Patrick Simon expressed surprise that the lawsuit was filed. Crumiller said she hopes a consultant’s review of the police department will help resolve any remaining issues in the department.
Simon expressed disappointment about the lawsuit, saying the separation agreement with Dudeck also included an agreement with the police union. The union withdrew its claims agains Dudeck in exchange for his retirement and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office dropped an investigation as part of the deal.
“We expect our police to protect and serve,” Simon said. “All the town can do now is figure out how best to proceed.”
The candidates differed on who should have oversight of the department. Rodriguez Wertz said just one person should have oversight, Administrator Robert Bruschi. Oversight by the administration would depoliticize the management of the police department, she said.
But Crumiller and Simon disagreed, and both said the police department should be overseen by the entire Princeton governing body.
“The police department is our largest expense and oversight by the Council would mean greater accountability…There is a misunderstanding about what the `appropriate authority’ is,” Crumiller said. “The appropriate authority in a town does not manage the day-to-day operations of the police department. The chief runs the day to day operations. The appropriate authority has final say on disciplinary matters, reviews operations, and approves rules and regulations.”
All three candidates agreed that the local police department should not play a role in enforcing federal immigration laws. They all said that should be left to U.S. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and that involvement by local police would only foster mistrust in the immigrant community.
“We have a failed national policy on immigration,” Simon said, noting the contributions immigrants make to the community and the abuse they suffer in terms of wage theft and mistreatment by landlords.
Rodriguez Wertz said the town’s relationship with Princeton University should never be adversarial.
“The University contributes a lot to the town, paying $10 million on property they own and another $2 million in payments. If they were to contribute more, would it reduce residents’ tax burden?” she asked.
Simon said having a new council and new leadership at the University provides a new opportunity for an improved relationship.
“The University helps make the town unique, but also puts stress on local services and neighbors,” Simon said. “They should increase their payment in lieu of taxes.”
Crumiller argued that the town-gown relationship is pretty good, but that the media blows things out of proportion. The school and town have collaborated successfully on a number if initiatives, she said.
“The University is critical to making the town what it is. But sometimes interests diverge, and all the parties work through their differences,” Crumiller said.
Residents were told to expect the same or better services after the consolidation of the two Princetons, but brush pickup service has been cut back in the former Borough.
Rodriguez Wertz said brush service should not be curtailed.
Simon acknowledged that officials have heard complaints about the brush service. The town is looking at increasing the frequency of pickups in areas that need it and communicating the schedule better, he said.
“It’s a big expense and some towns don’t provide this service, but it’s important to our residents so we’re working to fix it,” Crumiller said.
Rodriguez Wertz said spending and taxes are the most critical issues for the town. She said the town needs to stop borrowing money for major projects, at least for the next six years. “Debt service is 18 percent of the annual budget. That’s too much,” she said. “We need to schedule regular expenses, avoid lawsuits, hire fewer consultants, evaluate which public buildings are being put to best use, and possibly sell some.”
Simon said the town needs to balance keeping taxes under control with providing the services people expect from the municipality. The municipal tax rate for residents from Princeton Borough is lower than it was five years ago, and only 1.5 percent higher for residents from Princeton Township, he claimed. He said his top priority is emergency services because of recent storms and the hospital’s move to Plainsboro.
Crumiller said taxes, the police department, and development are key issues that need to be a priority. The town needs to protect neighborhoods, and she supports creating new historic districts, she said.
Rodriguez Wertz said if elected, she will be the first Latina in the history of Princeton Council. Born in Puerto Rico, she has lived in New Jersey since 1977 and in Princeton since 1989.
Crumiller, a Princeton resident for more than 20 years who has served on the Council for four years. said she wants to preserve Princeton’s character, history, and sense of community. “I don’t want Princeton to turn in to a city,” she said.
Simon is a 12-year resident of Princeton, is serving his first year on council. He previously served on the Princeton Consolidation Commission and the Transition Task Force.