The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office sent out an email this afternoon to inform reporters that a representative from the office will be meeting with Princeton officials next week to talk about the recent parking meter scandal.
“We will be meeting with Princeton officials and law enforcement representatives next week to discuss its investigation into the parking issue, and why that investigation has not resulted in criminal charges being filed,” reads the email.
Some officials have questioned whether criminal charges will be filed in the case. Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller contacted the prosecutor’s office this morning to ask whether charges would be filed.
“Residents keep asking me about the issue,” Crumiller said. “They deserve answers.”
One parking meter enforcement officer was fired and a second one was demoted after the town investigated whether employees of some businesses were allowed to park at expired meters all day and at two-hour parking spaces all day in exchange for food and other goods. Planet Princeton broke the story about the arrangement after a business owner and a resident complained to the news website. The employees were suspended without pay the day after the story was published.
More than 16 cars were regularly parked along Humbert Street and Greenview Avenue all day, almost every day, for example. The driver of each vehicle left a menu, sticker, coaster, shopping bag or other item on the dashboard to signify which business they worked for so they would not get ticketed. Several cars were also parked at meters all day in the parking lot behind CVS and were never ticketed, for example.
Asked for a report on the issue at the Princeton Council meeting last night, Administrator Robert Bruschi reviewed the case and answered questions.
“After one of the online media sources ran a story, we launched a full-scale internal investigation and one of the officers was terminated. Another was demoted and put back to work in the parking garage and received a 4-week unpaid suspension,” Bruschi said. “Only the one appeared to have gotten anything in return for not doing his job, whether overlooking enforcement or exchanging goods, that kind of thing, preferential treatment.”
Bruschi said the other officer was demoted because he did not follow proper procedures when handling a ticket.
“This is another dark day for us,” Bruschi said of the scandal some residents have dubbed Parking-Gate, Meter-Gate, and Play to Park.
“As we go through all these things, we’ve tried to find the silver lining,” Bruschi said. “We are trying to come up with a system where we can prevent this from happening again, or at least make it much more difficult for an individual to be able to be in a position to do this.”
Bruschi said currently a part-time enforcement officer is picking up additional hours and meter enforcement is being supplemented with police patrols. The parking enforcement officers are supervised by the police department, he said.
“I am hopeful we can come up with some system over the next week. Until we do, we won’t hire anyone,” Bruschi said. “We will review the job descriptions to see what changes can be made so we can get to a point where we can feel better about sending employees back out on the street.”
Bruschi said at the administrative level and the police level, he has spent significant time speaking to police and people who conduct inspections to make sure they are aware of town policies and that accepting goods is a career-ending move.
“We want to make sure staff understand that we have a no-tolerance policy,” he said. “As far as the businesses, I’m not sure what we can do. Someone mentioned the courtesy visit paid to businesses recently. That was done in conjunction with and as a follow up to the investigation. They were fully interviewed. We did not get to every business. We paid attention to those establishments we thought might be more susceptible to these kinds of things. We asked for their help. We don’t want our officers put in a bad position. We will remind them periodically from this point forward. Hopefully wont happen again, but one never knows.”
Bruschi told the council the matter was sent to the prosecutor’s office and is “in their hands” for them to deal with as they see fit.
“They have the information and our reports. I can’t comment on any information in the reports. It is potentially a criminal matter and the investigation is ongoing,” Bruschi said. “Hopefully we’ll have some answer soon. The media has covered this well. We are looking to move away from this black eye now, get this healed, and get this office on operating terms.”
Butler asked how much potential revenue the municipality lost because of money not being put in the meters.
“I have no real idea how we would look at that,” Bruschi said. “A lot of the preferential enforcement was done in two-hour zones. That is ticketing revenue, not meters. A ticket is $40. The state skims some off. We have no way of knowing how many meters or people were not ticketed, or whatever the deal was.”
Bruschi told the governing body he has also received other tips by members of the community about other issues since the meter story broke.
“There are some other items people thought are not kosher in the central business district in terms of the way they are handled,” Bruschi said. “Hopefully we will not get a slew of them. We received a couple of tips on things that do not seem right to people.”
Butler asked how many businesses were involved in the deal with the enforcement officer.
“More than one,” Bruschi said. “We got to a place where we got enough information to terminate one employee because of the management at one of the restaurants. The management was aware.”
Crumiller asked how just one employee could be involved in the arrangement in order for it to work.
“Another offer issued tickets to some of the people who were not supposed to be getting tickets because of the deals made,” Bruschi said. “A ticket was issued to one of them. The ticket came back. It’s one of ways we were able to tie this together.”
During public comment, resident Chip Crider suggested that businesses involved in the deal be required to perform community service.
“Being a parking meter enforcement officer is a thankless job. How can you do that job and have people still say hello to you?” Crider said. “If you look at the winners and losers here, the biggest loser was the police department. They don’t need bad publicity. You people lost. The government you control lost. Collectively we lost revenue, and the population lost places to park in because spaces were not turning over.”
“The winners were the merchants who participated in the scheme, and the employees,” he said. “Will they receive a summons and be prosecuted? It’s unlikely. Personally I think the merchants involved owe the town big time public service, perhaps Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner for the less fortunate…Shame them by passing a resolution that they need to give back in light of what has gone on, and maybe something good will come out of this.”