Planet Princeton

In Princeton, Democrats Use Rhetoric of Washington Against Fellow Democrats

Miller
Miller
nemeth
Nemeth
Butler
Butler

Analysis

Local Democrats are using the rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans at the national level against people in their own party.

Words like “gridlock”, “polarization” and “obstructionist” have been used in letters to the editor supporting the election of Council President Bernie Miller and Sue Nemeth as the local Democratic club endorsement meeting for the June town council primary nears. Few of the letters actually mention the name of opponent they are seeking to oust, fellow Democrat Jo Butler.

This Wednesday in a letter to the Town Topics, former Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner, who now lives in Hopewell and is a close ally of Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, went so far as to say some council members on the all-Democrat slate are using “Tea Party tactics.”

Two seats are available on the council this year. The primary race is not until June, but the Democratic club endorsement meeting is March 30. Butler, an incumbent, is running alone. Miller, the council president, is running as a slate with Nemeth. The pair served on the former Princeton Township committee together. Lempert, Howard and Liverman are backing the slate in an effort to oust Butler.

In light of the language of gridlock and obstructionism, Planet Princeton recently reviewed all of the available Princeton Council minutes from Jan. 1 of 2013 to Feb. 1 of 2014.

The council voted on 340 items in public session during that period, on issues ranging from ordinances and resolutions to professional appointments and more.

According to the review of minutes, the-six member, all Democrat council voted unanimously for 321 votes, or 94.4 percent of the time.

Council members were split for 19 votes, or 5.6 percent of all votes.

Lance Liverman, Heather Howard and Bernie Miller voted with the majority 99 percent of the time. Liverman voted with the majority more than anyone on council, voting with the majority 99.7 percent of the time.

In the borough form of government, the mayor only votes in case there is a tie. Lempert voted three times. All three times she voted with the voting block of Howard, Liverman, and Miller.

The other three council members, Jo Butler, Jenny Crumiller and Patrick Simon, voted with the majority 97 percent of the time. Simon voted with the majority 97.6 percent of the time.

The issues the council was split on came down to a handful of issues (The council voted on the same issue at least twice for ordinances).

Butler voted against approving a professional services contact with the town’s law firm, and opposed the retirement and release for former police chief David Dudeck. She disagreed that Administrator Bob Bruschi should be the authority supervising the police department and  argued that the council or a public safety committee should oversee the police, and voted to go into closed session on an issue but Miller and his slate refused because they were convinced there was a leak to the press on council. She also recused herself on a vote regarding Princeton University’s payment in lieu if taxes for 2013, questioning whether the mayor had a conflict of interest participating when her husband works for the university.

Crumiller voted against a lease with the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce to manage the Nassau Street kiosks, opposed a crosswalk ordinance, the wording of a sustainable land use pledge, the naming of the municipal buildings, the professional services agreement with the town’s law firm,, and the naming of Bruschi as the authority to oversee the police department. She also voted for going into closed session on another issue, but the majority refused to hold the session because they were convinced there was a council leak to the press.

Simon voted against naming Bruschi as the “appropriate authority” overseeing the police department, against a contract for a law firm to merge the municipal land use codes, against new proposed crosswalk design standards, and borrowing money for capital improvements. He voted to go into closed session on an issue, but the majority refused to hold the session because they were convinced there was a council leak to the press.

Howard voted against the proposal to have the Princeton Chamber take over the Nassau Street kiosks.

Miller voted against the proposed 2013 budget because he opposed the tax reduction in the budget. He also voted against a contract with a lawyer to review the municipal land use codes.

The one time Liverman voted against the majority was when Miller was absent. Miller’s absence meant Butler, Crumiller and Simon were the majority for a change. They voted against making Bruschi the appropriate authority for the police. Liverman and Howard disagreed with them.

Overall, Butler voted against the majority nine times, Crumiller voted against the majority ten times, and Simon voted against the majority eight times. Miller voted against the majority three times, Howard voted against the majority twice, and Liverman voted against the majority once.

What are your thoughts on the Democratic divide and these statistics? Do you feel the recent campaigning is overkill? What suggestions do you have for improving local government and the way political parties function (or don’t) in Princeton?

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Dudley Sipprelle

    Although I don’t as a rule feed Internet trolls, this one merits a
    comment. It is typical of liberal left group think and its often specious argumentation to attempt to demonize opposing points of view. Thus, we have here the attempt to tar Republicans as disruptive tea-party types who couldn’t possibly contribute to a productive discussion or meritorious outcome. This type of slander is, to paraphrase, the last resort of the unprincipled. It’s
    equivalent to labeling all Democrats as “Occupy Wall Street” anarchists.

    The editor asked for a discussion of ideas to advance local governance. The assertion that local property taxes are not a particularly relevant issue, just doesn’t get it or just plain wishes to avoid the major problem for the long-run sustainability of our beloved Princeton. By the way, man up (or person up, if you prefer) and come out of the shadows. The IRS is certainly not going to come after you!

  • Princetonrez

    If anyone is scratching their heads saying it doesn’t make sense then go back and watch the old princeton township committee meetings online. It appears that each meeting lasted about an hour. The committee voted unanimously 99.99999% of the time.The mayor would speak and the rest would just nod their heads. Hardly a peep out of our mayor until she decided to run for mayor. Planet Princeton should review all the recordings and look at the short meeting times and the unanimous votes and write a story about that. This is the kind of government Lempert and co want to shove down the throats of the citizens of the consolidated princeton

  • Frank Wiener

    Anonymous Internet bullies with no information are just so intimidating.

  • SFB

    Angus, some corrections are due: I haven’t even mentioned taxes in this thread, I’m not a Republican, and all my comments on this thread have been on-topic.

  • Angus J. B. McTroutbender

    No, I’m part of the Toronto branch of the McTroutbenders.

    You and SFB have hijacked this thread as a platform for your Republican chant “taxes, taxes, taxes.” Wow — three taxing authorities! Gosh — three taxing authorities!!!

    This article is about a local election; you, in an earlier comment make it clear that you not writing about the local election, but rather, your words: “My primary concern is the matter of local taxes, including those imposed by all three local taxing jurisdictions….”

    And as you write in another post, “this article allows us the rare opportunity to begin to understand the underlying causes of the general problem…” assuming taxes are the problem.

    That’s just silly; your tax problem–assuming the rate of return of services for taxes is a problem, which has yet to be shown–is a structural issue far beyond the scope of this local election or the voting patterns of this council. You complain there are three taxing authorities, however, you do this in the context of the one of those three that actually, in fact, lowered their tax component of your aggregate tax bill.

    Your complaint is with the legislature of New Jersey, the body that set up our in-state governing structure, something they did a long time ago.

    Merely attaching your righteous indignation, your loose-cannon anger-about taxes (which is statistically likely tied to your contempt for the poor), to anything that catches your eye, is akin to those tea party types who disrupt town-hall meetings.

    Good day, sir!

  • Frank Wiener

    Sandra: For some of us, but apparently not all of us, the impossible taxes imposed by three separate and very demanding, local tax authorities are not at all “off topic” here because this article allows us the rare opportunity to begin to understand the underlying causes of the general problem.

  • Frank Wiener

    @Angus: Are you related to the McTroutbenders on Walnut Lane? I like to know with whom I am communicating and who exactly is lecturing me about what I know and don’t know. Citizens of Princeton don’t know how municipal government in Princeton works. You are 100% correct. You would love Havana and Tehran even more.

  • Lydon McLaren

    Total agreement: Liz Lempert is a child faking an adult role.

    By the way, it’s spelled “clique,” but no matter, caused you nailed the notion.

  • SFB

    @ Jenny – thanks for putting more elegantly what I was trying to say – that most work/discussion takes place outside of Council meetings, not in the Council meeting itself.

  • Princetonrez

    Too bad Dick Woodbridge was not elected mayor of the consolidated Princeton. I’m a Dem and I voted for him. He would have worked collaboratively with everyone. Instead we have Princeton’s government being run by a junior high click, with the top dogs using tears, vague accusations and a whisper campaign to try to get rid of the girl they don’t like. Watch the movie Mean Girls and note the similarities.

  • Jenny Crumiller

    SFB, the municipal staff, led by the administrator, handles the vast majority of the work of local government. Most agenda items that come to us for approval have been worked out by the staff, in many cases with one or two council members or committees. We review the details individually ahead of the meetings, but in most cases there is no need for discussion.

  • SFB

    @krystal- I’m not a lawyer but I find it extraordinary that the Council members happen to agree so often if they have not been discussing policy items on the side. I would be astonished if the Council members weren’t talking about policy items outside of Council meetings. I suspect they talk about policy items amongst themselves every day. Anyway, we don’t need to speculate- just ask Chad to give some examples of what the ‘gridlock’ is that he was referring to. I’d be surprised if he didn’t want to comment, but if he refused to give any examples, that would also tell a story.

  • krystalknapp

    I have been covering local government for 15 years. Most governing bodies in NJ are part-time, run by volunteers, with the same time limitations. The length of time the council meetings last and the percentage of unanimous votes vary quite a bit from council to council for part-time governing bodies. Whether you believe it or not, it is a violation of the Sunshine Law for the council to deliberate via email or in private. There is case law on this issue.

  • Angus J. B. McTroutbender

    @SFB Neither you nor Frank understand how municipal government works. There is a baseline percentage of items — routine (run the business of government) items — on which there is, and should be, full and immediate agreement. If most items, much less every item, of the Council’s business were contested, nothing would get done. And things do get done. In fact, a baseline vote of 94.4% agreement, together with a municipal-component tax reduction after consolidation, indicates a functioning council. We may, or may not, like this one or that one, but on the whole, they get the job done.

    This story is about how Miller and Nemeth are trying to suggest the council is terribly broken and doesn’t function. In a way, this story is about Nemeth, and to a lesser extent, Miller, ruined local politics by importing all the good clean high-level dialogue campaigning lessons Nemeth learned on her primary Assembly voyage.

    Congrats to the Miller-Nemeth slate: You’ve lowered the bar.

  • SFB

    I don’t believe it would constitute a violation of the Sunshine Law and surely everybody knows it goes on? The amount of time available for discussion in Council meetings is quite small, and extensive discussion just leads to items being tabled. To avoid wasting time, stuff only goes on the agenda when the votes are there to pass it. The proof of this is the 94.4% unanimity on votes. So the discussion outside of Council meetings is almost more important than what goes on inside of Council meetings. We might not like this, but it’s clearly what happens, and is in large part a consequence of having a part-time Council.

    Did you ask Chad Goerner what he meant by his comments? It would be interesting if he could cite a few examples about what he was referring to… his letter was certainly eyebrow-raising.

  • krystalknapp

    Discussing agenda items and establishing consensus ahead of time would be a violation of the state’s Sunshine Law. The whole point of the law is that deliberations of public bodies are supposed to be done in public. Are you trying to say the Princeton governing body has been breaking the state law?

  • SFB

    They vote unanimously 94.4% of the time. I don’t see any plausible explanation for that other than that they discuss the agenda items and establish consensus ahead of the Council meetings. The debate we see in Council meetings is only a tiny part of the politicking that goes on.

  • krystalknapp

    If the council is deliberating items outside of public meetings (excepted for the very limited items allowed to be discussed in executive session) then they would be in violation of the State’s Open Public Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law.

  • Sandra J. Bierman

    I agree on the school board issue, especially because it seems that they want more money each year; however, they have funds or will find the funds to demolish a building (Valley Rd)adding more chaos and traffic problems to Witherspoon St. It. Not the same topic but I am taking advantage that somebody brought it up. I wrote a couple letters regarding the issue, just wait until the time comes an disguised as teachers’salaries, health plans, an so forth, they will get their way with out tax money.

  • SFB

    There is another explanation, which nobody seems to be considering: that most of the things that the Council members disagree about don’t get voted on in Council. With limited time in Council meetings, the Council members only vote on proposals that have essentially been pre-agreed. Disagreements outside the Council chamber may mean that certain initiatives never make it to the agenda. If this is true, Krystal’s analysis, although numerically accurate, does not give us any insight into the degree of disagreement among Council members.

  • Frank Wiener

    Without the caps, you’re correct. We disagree. If you like being represented by a Council that agrees 95% of the time on 340 separate votes, then you apparently accept the status quo. Good for you. My primary concern is the matter of local taxes, including those imposed by all three local taxing jurisdictions, for those of us who can no longer afford to pay them and the underlying causes of these very high taxes. It’s not that complicated.

  • Angus J. B. McTroutbender

    Well, Frank, we’ll have to agree to disagree. Just like the school board funding conversation you’ve got going in another thread, you’re using this story as a platform by which to raise other issues. I don’t argue against your right to raise those issues, but linking them to this story is opportunistic at best, and sort of silly, at worst.

    This story is about a small group of very controlling, very manipulative local politicians turning the local electoral process into an over-the-top mockery complete with Washington style rhetoric coming entirely from the Miller-Nemeth camp.

    This story is not about consolidation. This “cabal slate” approach to local government could have happened in the newly consolidated form of government, or in the prior incarnations of either of the two governments.

    I appreciate the depth of feeling that all caps conveys, but speaking louder doesn’t make the assertion truer. The focus here is local electoral politics. The wisdom, or lack thereof, of consolidation is a different conversation.

    Take the data Krystal presents about voting patterns and write an op-ed and open that conversation.

    P.S. And, when you do, explain how a 94.4% unanimity rate is inefficient — you do realize that if they didn’t vote together most of the time, nothing–at all–would get done. You say you want “more efficiency” yet you decry the votes that represent efficient legislating.

  • Frank Wiener

    @R Adam: Thank you. As long as you brought up the Princeton School Board budget, according to my research, this Board spends far more per pupil than 15 other highly ranked NJ districts with similar demographics. Once again, when I compare Princeton to the neighboring West Windsor-Plainsboro district, which is highly rated by the NJ DOE, among others, the figure is $18,000 vs $13,000. Perhaps a Princeton School Board member can explain and justify that substantial difference. As to the counties, the Township of Berkeley Heights in Union County, apparently burdened by outrageous taxes as we are, voted in November to secede from Union County. While BH faces a huge, uphill battle, perhaps similarly over-burdened NJ towns need to band together to lobby for state law changes in this area.

  • Frank Wiener

    Krystal: Thank you for writing a very important, analytical article with substance, which no other local media source bothers to do. Three’s the charm. I didn’t realize that disqus hadn’t fully loaded the first two times.

  • Frank Wiener

    Angus: Consolidation is most definitely a relevant factor here. For many years, I was promised more efficient local government as a result of consolidation. It didn’t happen. Financially, all that the consolidated Council did was to combine two entire (and bloated) municipal budgets with a resulting budget reduction of only 5%. This was not what was promised to me. This discussion has EVERYTHING to do with what was promised.

  • Angus J. B. McTroutbender

    Explain, please, how consolidation is a relevant factor in this discussion.

    What, exactly, are you suggesting?

    Or, like Miller, Nemeth, Lempert, Goerner, and the Professor and Mary Ann, are you just throwing around vague insinuations not backed by clear undebatable facts? Just want to muddy the waters, eh?

  • Peter Marks

    Great article. Great Comments. Maybe this time the bullies will lose.

  • saljoe1

    How’s consolidation working for you?

  • krystalknapp

    It worked this time. Thanks for your patience Mr. Wiener.

  • R Adam

    Add to this the $87M the school board spends and you have nearly $150M spent each year to educate and serve 30,000 people (and this doesn’t include the substantial dollars we kick up to the County).

  • Frank Wiener

    This is my third attempt to comment, so please forgive if three different comments appear.

    As a 24-year resident and taxpayer of Princeton, I am alarmed that all of the Princeton Council members have agreed with each other on 340 separate votes for 95% of the time. Would the people whom they represent vote in this way? I seriously wonder. As to the budget, I am still asking without an acceptable answer as to why Princeton has an annual budget that exceeds $60 million while our neighbors in West Windsor, with approximately the same population, has an annual budget of only $37 million. In addition, I examined the budgets of five other NJ municipalities with similar populations and demographics only to discover that none of them have annual budgets that approach $60 million. Is this fact because no one on the Council can say “no” to the majority for more than 5% of the time, if even that? At a time when some of us must face the decision to leave Princeton due to the impossible taxes of three separate and demanding local tax authorities, it is both disturbing and revealing that no one on the Council is strong or independent enough to say “no” to the majority. Thanks to Planet Princeton for making us aware of this unpleasant reality.

  • T J Elliott

    Ditto. Wonderful to see.

  • Sandra J. Bierman

    I don’ t understand why a former mayor is involved. My guess he is the puppeteer pulling the strings, the one who can’t let go. He must think he is a big shot, and why not, if he is the “consultant”…oh, well, things are getting more clear.

  • Calpurnia

    Yes, the campaigning by the slate is too much. Their professional mass mailing, phone bank and babysitting operation for a club endorsement make them seem weirdly desperate.

    Besides this excellent analysis of voting, on January 1, 2014 the mayor spent 45 minutes straight listing out the council’s accomplishments in the previous year, pretty much disproving the tea party accusation and the claims of gridlock.

    Next thing you know, the slate will be claiming Jo Butler is against public schools – just watch.

  • Dill Harris

    Excellent reporting, thank you: So, let’s see what we’ve got: Nemeth and Miller…. and apparently Lempert and Liverman… (and Goerner — really? he doesn’t even live here anymore)… well, it seems they’ve constructed a straw-man argument by borrowing the worst of what Washington has to offer.

    Their shallow, easy-to-read sleight-of-hand allows them to paint some shadow opponent with gross exaggerations in order to hide their true intentions, which is to simply to oust Butler, who by all accounts, is doing an excellent job (even though Lempert, Miller, and Liverman don’t “like” her).

    When examined carefully, as done here via council voting records, Nemeth and Miller’s substantive claims are revealed as “all sound and fury signifying nothing.” Since they have no substantive reason why Nemeth would be a good replacement for Butler on the council, their campaign is one of procedure over substance: They’ve whipped up a fake “toxic divided Washington-like” ambience, and are then pretending to solve it by bringing in Nemeth. The problem with that strategy is that the public has experience with Nemeth’s style, grace, tact, and collaborative sensibilities. The votes will fall where they will. When she ran just recently as one of 13 candidates for 12 PCDO Executive Board seats, she lost; Corfield boxed her out; really, she doesn’t seem particularly electable at this point.

    So, first, there’s no substantive issue — the council voted unanimously 321 times, i.e., 94% of the time. And second, either if there were Washington-like-gridlock here in our town, it hardly seems from all the talent that Princeton has to offer, that Nemeth is the solution.

    In the absence of a substantive lever on which to campaign, Nemeth and Miller turn professional: they start the campaigning season just after January 1st; they hire a professional direct mail service for a local town election who sent us “presorted bulk rate mail” for an in-town election; and, just like the good old fashioned Tammany Hall machine: need a baby-sitter? need a ride? Next, I expect them to hand out Thanksgiving turkeys. Please.

    P.S. As for Goerner, dear me, he should move on and stop trying to influence the local politics of a place he left. That’s just strange, and likely represents an overestimation of his lingering political capital.

  • Alaink

    Sounds like the Putkin vote in Crimea. We need more independent thought and discussion. Are we a communist community?

  • Sheldon Sturges

    Accuracy matters. Thank you, Planet Princeton. Well done.

  • Peggy Boudinot

    One letter to Wednesday’s Town Topics analyzes Council’s so-called “gridlock” (a nonsensical claim, as Planet Princeton has demonstrated) as follows:

    Council must be able to act together as contemplated in our democratic form of government. We know from the example in Washington that power plays and polarization lead to gridlock, which leads to the inability of legislative members to consider the issues from a rational point of view.

    Our democracy does not contemplate all legislators acting together–quite the opposite. Yes, power plays and polarization lead to irrationality. But it’s Lempert, Liverman, Miller, Nemeth, and Howard–now joined by former Mayor Goerner–who are acting irrationally in attempting to consolidate their power. I’m particularly disappointed in Heather Howard, who joined Borough Council with so much promise as a progressive. Why she should ally herself with our current mayor passes my understanding. The only link I see between them is that one works for the University, and the other one’s husband does.

  • Dudley Sipprelle

    This is an excellent analysis of our ideologically monochromatic municipal
    government. Local
    governance could be improved immensely by changing Princeton’s partisan form of
    governance which was forced on us as part of consolidation. As it stands now,
    one-third of the electorate is effectively disenfranchised. A couple of
    Republicans on Council would immensely enhance diversity of thought regarding
    how best to improve quality of life in Princeton as well as transparency and
    bureaucratic oversight. Balance on the current Council leans to personal
    agendas first and taxpayers last. Additionally, if the Mayor were to
    appoint Republicans to Princeton’s Boards, Commissions and Committees in numbers
    even remotely equivalent to their percentage of votes cast, that would go a long
    way to dispelling the odor of Princeton’s own spoils system.

  • Pat Palmer

    Thank you Planet Princeton for this clear-eyed research. Damn good reporting.

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