Planet Princeton filed a public records request with the town of Princeton last week seeking the details of meetings between Princeton University officials and town officials over the past two years.
Planet Princeton filed the request on Dec. 3 seeking all emails sent or received by Mayor Liz Lempert, Council President Bernie Miller, former Administrator Bob Bruschi, or Administrator Marc Dashield referencing meetings with Princeton University officials, including Christopher Eisgruber, Robert Durkee, Kristin Appelget or their representatives.
The public records request was filed in response to claims from sources that the mayor and council president had been holding private quarterly meetings with Princeton University officials.
The former administrator for the University, the former head lawyer for the town, and the town’s tax attorney also allegedly held a private meeting with officials from the school last year regarding the lawsuit filed by residents regarding the school’s tax exempt status, sources have told Planet Princeton. The town representatives allegedly promised to support the school in the lawsuit.
Councilwoman Jo Butler said the council only learned recently about the meetings between Princeton University officials and the mayor and council president, and the meeting about the tax case. Butler said the Princeton Council has never received any reports or updates from the mayor and council president regarding the content of the meetings.
“They neither sought our input not reported out on the meetings,” Butler said. “The meetings certainly were in keeping with the other private agreements and meetings with Princeton University, including the one with our tax attorney last year.”
Asked for details about the meeting between the tax attorney, the town’s former head lawyer, and the town’s former administrator, Butler said she could not comment on the content of the meeting.
Lempert, whose husband is a professor at the University, has abstained on most discussions and votes related to the school in the past. Lempert said she also has abstained when the council discusses the tax exempt lawsuit.
“I have recused myself from the Princeton University tax lawsuit. Your question presumes that, in your words, `the former administrator, the lawyer, and the tax lawyer met with the university to discuss the tax status case and promised to support the school’.” Lempert said. “I do not know this to be true.”
Lempert acknowledged that she and Miller have been meeting with Bob Durkee and Kristin Appelget on a quarterly basis.
“The idea for holding these meetings came out of recommendations made to me by a group of residents, including Anton Lahnston, Barbara Trelstad, and Bill Wakefield, who had gotten together out of concern that the relationship between the community and University had fractured,” Lempert said. “One of the signs of this fracture was that the regular meetings between the former Borough mayor and University admins had stopped occurring, contributing to a breakdown in communication. One of their recommendations was to re-institute these regular meetings between the Mayor and PU admins. The meetings had not been regular practice in the former Township, but had been occurring for decades in the former Borough, dating back to the days of Barbara Sigmund, I believe. The meetings help keep lines of communication open.”
Lempert said the town’s response to the Planet Princeton public records request will show that the meetings are largely about operational issues like the status of construction projects, for example.
“When I ran for office in 2012, I was completely open about the fact that my husband is a tenured neuroscience professor. The voters elected me knowing that,” Lempert said. “I follow the legal advice I get, which means I do not recuse myself on most items related to the University, only those on a case-by-case basis, which tend to be related to either land use decisions or litigation. I’ve been Mayor for almost three years now, and I’ve found that I am able to use my position to help foster the kind of relationship with the University that has delivered benefits to the community.”
Both of the candidates who ran for mayor in the general election in 2012 had spouses who worked at Princeton University, so voters were not offered a choice between a person with ties to the school and a person without ties in that general election.