Princeton Governing Body Spars Over Council Committee Assignments

Princeton Mayor Lempert broke a tie about closed sessions tonight.

Some members of the Princeton Council aren’t happy with the assignments they have been given on town boards and committees, and this week officials battled each other in public about the issue at the regular Princeton Council meeting.

The matter may seem petty. But some committees like police, finance, and personnel have greater authority over major town issues. Also, some officials want the council to consider the issue of conflict of interest for some of the positions.

Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said at the council meeting Monday night that she did not think all the assignments were fair, and she wanted to discuss the appointments in a closed session. The mayor makes appointments, but the Council must vote to approve them. The mayor said she spoke with each council member individually about the appointments and thought people were satisfied with their assignments.

The mayor, Councilwoman Heather Howard, Council President Bernie Miller, and Councilman Lance Liverman, all argued that the issue is not appropriate for a closed session and would violate the Open Public Meetings Act. Lempert, Miller and Liverman previously served on the Princeton Township Committee together. Any discussion of appointments should be done in public to be transparent, they said. Crumiller and others argued there are some sensitive personnel issues regarding individual council members like potential conflicts of interest they did not want to debate in public.

Traditionally in the former Princeton Township, the township committee would get around the issue by holding a political caucus to discuss the appointments. Some governing body members suggested that the new governing body might adopt that practice.

Town Attorney Ed Schmierer, the longtime attorney in the former Township, agreed with Lempert that the Council appointments could not be discussed in closed session.

But Walter Luers, a lawyer and open government advocate who heads the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said he thinks discussions about committees and appointments can be discussed in closed session under the personnel exclusion.

“The personnel exception is not limited to `employees’,” Luers said. ” The Open Public Meetings Act exception also permits the public body to discuss the appointment of public officers. The Open Public Meetings Act also includes persons the public body appoints.”

“If the choice is between executive session and a political caucus, the much more transparent option is the executive session, because at least the law requires that minutes be kept of the executive session and that the minutes be released at an appropriate time,” Luers said. “A political caucus is simply a black hole of information.”

During the council meeting, Schmierer and Councilman Patrick Simon got into a debate about whether the Open Public Meetings Act covers elected officials. Schmierer argued it only applies to employees and is very narrow.

“I think the intent of the statute, when it talks about public officers or employees, it goes to the essence of the job they hold,” Schmierer said. “It is not meant to go down to the next level and talk about the organization.”

Simon said Schmierer used the exact opposite logic last summer after Lempert sought a legal opinion from him on her powers as mayor and her authority to make appointments. On that issue, he said Schmierer argued that council members are public officers.

“Here you are using the exact reverse logic,” Simon said. Schmierer disagreed with his statement.

Schmierer said the open public meetings personnel exception is only meant for the discussion of employees, who must receive notices called Rice notices if they are going to be discussed in closed session.

But Luers said other personnel issues can be discussed in closed session. “Not everyone who is discussed in executive session under the personnel exception is entitled to a Rice notice,” Luers said.

The law allows public bodies to go in to closed session to discuss, “Any matter involving the employment, appointment, termination of employment, terms and conditions of employment, evaluation of the performance, promotion or disciplining of any specific prospective public officer or employee or current public officer or employee employed or appointed by the public body, unless all individual employees or appointees whose rights could be adversely affected request in writing that such matter or matters be discussed at a public meeting.”

Crumiller, who argued the appointments should be allocated either by seniority or consensus, said she wanted Schmierer to research the closed session issue and give the council a written legal opinion.

Lempert said the council should not waste taxpayer money on the legal research. Councilwoman Jo Butler said she thought Crumiller was entitled to seek a legal opinion.

“Fundamentally we have a colleague who has asked for a conversation and a legal opinion,” she said. “I worry we are on a slippery slope. In the borough form of government we have, we are all entitled to go to the attorney for advice. No one is the gatekeeper. We are supposed to copy the administrator and make sure expense don’t go over the legal budget. It is not anyone’s place to say another person is not entitled to a legal opinion. This is a simple conversation to talk about workload. We should be able to act in a collegial manner.”


    1. Please, do, and for Patrick Simon, the 3 council members who are not afraid to express their honest opinion, they do not feel they have to side with the mayor, hold hands, an get along. Independent, brilliant thinkers, who serve the public who elect them, not always trying to please their friends.

  1. Kudos to Butler for supporting Crumiller on this. I agree that the attorney for the majority is trying to have it both ways, according to whatever his cohorts want to accomplish.

  2. I hardly need point out that the Mayor and three Council persons who agree that closed sessions to discuss committee appointments are unnecessary and inappropriate — why, they’re the same four elected officials supporting the Sue Nemeth / Bernie Miller slate. What were the assignments Mayor Lempert tried to hand out? Does anyone know?

  3. Honest opinion? The same person who called 911 without an emergency to find out whether PU Public Safety or Princeton Police answered? Are you serious? The same two council members who appear to have been massively conflicted over the Dinky move? Wake Up Princeton.

    1. Do you mean the three council member that decide not to play “Follow the Leader”?
      I’d vote for them again and again; because they say it out front, they are not scared, they don’t feel they have to agree on everything, those are the government officials that I like.

    2. Isn’t the biggest conflict the fact that Simon works for Crummiller’s husband? Why isn’t this regularly mentioned?

      1. What about the mayor’s husband working at PU and Mrs.Howard, too…what does Patrick Simon working for Jenny’s husband has to do with anything?

      2. It’s not regularly mentioned because it’s irrelevant. Under no code of law, ethics, or political propriety is that a conflict.

    3. Having been connected to an unexpected PSAP before and having been bounced from one PSAP to another, I know that cellular 911 is neither simple nor reliable. In an emergency, that’s rather unsettling especially if you are in an unfamiliar area.

      So I give Butler a pass on the 911 thing. The question was fair, important, and unresolved. It’s not like this council was going to fire the staff that should have been able to answer the questions but couldn’t – or even just make them do their jobs properly.

      So yes, I’m serious about the need for a well-understood mobile 911 system and public awareness of what to expect when dialing 911 from a cell phone. Was anybody concerned about mobile 911 when the AT&T/T-Mobile site came off the old hospital, BTW?

    1. We are now getting down to the hard facts–the center of town has different interests, especially concerning zoning, brush pickup, and perhaps policing–as compared with suburbs where houses have plenty of space around them. This was the reason so many people opposed consolidation for so long. Committee memberships are where the main work gets done, and it’s important. Everybody getting along at the cost of the public good is not real high on my priority list. Maintaining a livable inner town is.

      1. It’s now clear that consolidation was just a power play. There was no savings and the Township politicians really don’t care about the Borough. It’s amazing that the Township leaders of Lempart, Nemeth, Miller, Howard, Liverman show no concern for the interests of the Borough and are trying to eliminate the representatives from the former Borough.

        Honestly, why did the Township team want to be elected? Having a non-democratic machine isn’t anything to be proud of. I would think Liz would care about her integrity. At this rate, she is going to be an example of New Jersey politics at its worst.

        1. Consolidation was a way to liberate Boro residents from the Crumiller-Butler-Yina Moore troika. Good riddance to their petty, sniveling incompetence.

          1. Can you give any examples? It’s easy to make accusations. Liverman broke a law and put public safety at risk. Yina Moore is not part of the current council, nor was she a part of the Borough, except for one year. Butler and Crumiller have been advocates for open, transparent government. They have stepped on some people’s toes, but that’s good. Princeton government has been opened up.

            If you’re talking about incompetence, the mistake about the $3 million dollar savings in consolidation is a big one and that is entirely on the backs of Lempart, Liverman, Nemeth, and Miller.

            1. Patrick, I highly doubt misrepresenting consolidation savings was a mistake. I believe it was deliberate, done to put the best possible face on their efforts, even if $3M wasn’t true.

              1. This is getting tiresome. $3 million was the difference between the consolidated Princeton budget and the combined budgets of the township and Borough. That’s a fact. Some of that money was double-counted because of shared services but that does not mean that consolidation was a failure or some kind of con-trick. A marriage is about more than the first year, and many of the savings from consolidation will take years to realize. I get the impression that some people would rather consolidation was a failure just so they could have the pleasure about being right about their original opposition to the idea. How about less whining, and more support for the consolidation project? Unless somebody has a better idea for shrinking spending and maintaining services?

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