The Princeton Council voted 4-3 not to hold a closed session tonight because some council members are concerned that some governing body members are leaking information from the private sessions to the press.
Mayor Liz Lempert, Council President Bernie Miller, Councilman Lance Liverman, and Councilwoman Heather Howard voted against a motion made by Councilman Patrick Simon to have a closed session to discuss professional contracts, recent AvalonBay litigation, and negotiations with Princeton University.
“We didn’t list a closed session tonight because nothing is pressing, and I’ve had more than one council member raise concerns with me that they felt uncomfortable continuing on with closed sessions at the present moment because we have a fiduciary responsibility. When confidentiality isn’t respected, we do risk that responsibility that we have.”
Lempert said some governing body members will attend the closed sessions but do not feel comfortable speaking because they are uncomfortable and feel the process of keeping things secret is not working. Miller agreed.
“I have great sympathy with Mr. Simon’s suggestion that we hold a closed session, but I’m concerned that not all of us sitting up here view closed sessions through the same lens. We don’t share the same understanding of what a closed session is,” Miller said. “I’m-reluctant to participate further in closed sessions until we all share the same understanding. We operate like board of directors of a corporation. There is an understanding either implied or specific that you follow. Part of the code is that when you discuss things in closed session, it remains privileged for only those who participate. Until we get to the point where we share that common understanding, I will have great difficulty going ahead with further closed sessions.”
Lempert said she has reached out to Bill Kearns, the lawyer for the League of Municipalities who also served as the lawyer for the consolidation transition task force, and asked him to provide training to the governing body about closed sessions.
Councilwoman Jo Butler said understands closed session information is private. But she said she feels like the move to not hold closed sessions is going in the wrong direction. Town officials should push for more transparency, not less transparency, she said.
“And at our last meeting we all agreed we would not speak out of hand,” Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said. “What more can we do, take a blood oath? we’ve all agreed it is important not to reveal what happens in closed session. I would like to go into closed session tonight.”
Simon said he proposed session because all of the issues are timely.
“With respect to confidentiality, I’d simply remind my colleagues that the confidentiality of closed sessions is not indefinite..It is supposed to be reported openly once the confidentiality need is no longer present. I understand the concerns raised by colleagues. But it is not a solution to not have closed sessions. We should work through the issue to the best of our ability.”
But Howard argued that closed session leaks could put the taxpayers at risk. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers,” she said. “Negotiations could be jeopardized. Personnel issues could be disclosed and we could be at risk for lawsuits. The protection of the taxpayers has to be primary.”
The majority voted down holding a closed session, with Lempert breaking the council tie. Lempert said she would try to bring the lawyer in to consult with the council on closed session issues this month so that the council can have a closed session Oct. 28.
“There is such discomfort among members of the council about holding closed sessions, that I felt I need to respect that,” Lempert said.