Planet Princeton
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Municipality Begins Releasing Emails Between Town, Princeton University Officials

The town of Princeton has begun releasing email correspondence between local officials and Princeton University representatives regarding meetings between the two parties over the last two years.

The emails are being released in response to a public records request submitted by Planet Princeton on Dec. 3 under the state’s Open Public Records Act and New Jersey Common Law for all emails and correspondence regarding meetings between the two groups over the last two years.

Town officials have asked for additional time to prepare the records, because the request has generated hundreds of pages of emails. Lawyers are reviewing the emails to redact information contained in the emails that they consider exempt from public disclosure under state law.

Planet Princeton requested all emails between the mayor, the council president, the previous municipal administrator or the current municipal administrator, and top Princeton University officials regarding meetings between the two groups.

Mayor Liz Lempert and Council President Bernie Miller have been meetings regularly with Princeton University Vice President Robert Durkee and Princeton University Director of Community and Regional Affairs Kristin Appelget over the last two years, but the regular meetups were not disclosed to the full Princeton Council until recently. Reports from the meetings were never passed on to the Council or mentioned during Council reports at public meetings. A few days after Planet Princeton filed the public records request, Mayor Liz Lempert held a press conference where she brought up the meetings for the first time and praised them as an example of a successful partnership.

According to the documents released so far, the mayor and council president met with Durkee and Appelget every other month to discuss a broad range of town and gown issues.

Some of the discussions in the emails were procedural, for example seating arrangements for Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber’s visit to the Princeton Council and how public comment would be managed. University officials said Eisgruber would listen to public comment for 15 minutes, but they did not think it would be beneficial for him to respond to questions directly, for example.

Many of the topics listed as part of the agenda for the meetings were broader. Following are some of the topics listed in the documents that have been received so far:

  • Princeton University eating club oversight
  • Update on campus planning and the strategic planning process
  • Meeting between town officials and the University’s campus planning consultants from Urban Strategies (a 3-hour meeting was scheduled for Lempert,  Miller and Administrator Bob Bruschi to meet with them.)
  • Tourist bus problems
  • A review of the memorandum of understanding between the municipality and the University regarding public transit and the Dinky station, and the review of a written matrix prepared by University officials that tracks the achievements of milestones in the MOU.
  • The recap of a visit Lempert and Appelget made to the Dinky station
  • Updates on the Butler and Stanworth demolition projects
  • The Merwick-Stanworth affordable units
  • The underage drinking ordinance
  • The paid sick leave ordinance
  • The announcement of the voluntary contribution agreement between the University and the town
  • Permits and fines for reunion 2015
  • Meeting to introduce new administrator to key University personnel
  • The 655 bus
  • Bainbridge House
  • Bike share program
  • The eruv
  • Shuttle bus from Franklin lot to Merwick-Stanworth
  • Temporary use of 156 Alexander Street by the fire department
  • Whig-Clio outreach, TruckFest, Princeton Hackathon, ribbon cuttings

The next set of documents is expected to be released before the new year. Planet Princeton will post an update after the remaining records are reviewed.

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.

  • GoodGovernment

    What are the state statutes that you mention?

    What is the penalty if the statute is violated? And who enforces it?

  • King George III

    Who needs a six-member Council? A Mayor and a Police Commissioner should be enough, particularly if the Mayor has a spouse who works for the University and the Police Commissioner actually works for the University. This streamlined arrangement will mean that the greater good will be swiftly recognized, with no irksome questions from naysayers who worry about conflict of interest niceties that are inapplicable to Princeton politics. If one understands that Princeton University’s interest is the public interest, it follows that the Mayor and the Police Commissioner should not be questioned when they decide issues involving taxation, transportation, policing, etc. through private consultation with the University. A little bit of democracy goes a long way, a fact that Mayor Lempert has obviously understood.

  • Penny Boudinot

    From New Jersey League of Municipalities / Conflicts of Interest for Municipal Officials in New Jersey:

    Exactly what type of interest must an official have in a given issue to create a conflict sufficient to prevent him or her from participating in any decisions concerning the matter?

    The statutes are clear that it need not be the official’s own interest that is in conflict with his or her duty to the public. If a member of the official’s immediate family, defined as a spouse or dependent child living in the same household, or a business in which he or she has at least a 10 percent interest, has such a conflict, that conflict is attributed to the official.

    This conflicting interest can be either a financial or a personal interest. It must also be an interest that the official, or the official’s family member or business, does not share with the general public. Beyond these parameters, however, the standards are less clear. In most cases, it is the “practical feel of the situation,” on a case by case basis that will determine the existence of a conflict.

    It is not necessary to prove that the special interest actually influenced the official’s decision, as long as it creates a possible conflict.

  • OpenGovernment

    You seem to be in a position where you know what the emails contain and already know that there is nothing amiss there. That is great to hear.

    But all taxpayers have the legal right to also check this for themselves. Unless you are arguing against the open government laws, I don’t see what your issue is, since you’ve already been able to check this for yourself. And if you haven’t checked this, then you really don’t know what you’re talking about.

  • Defender

    Yes I am sure the emails about TruckFest and the Bike Share Program are chock full of juicy gossip. People in this town need something better to do with their time.

  • Jan

    If you care to, please examine the provided resources, conduct inquires, share your findings and keep the conversation going.

    State of New Jersey / Local Government Ethics Law
    http://www.nj.gov/dca/divisions/dlgs/programs/ethics_docs/lgethics.pdf

    State of New Jersey / Ethics Laws and Complaints
    http://www.state.nj.us/dca/divisions/dlgs/programs/ethics.html

    New Jersey League of Municipalities / Conflicts of Interest for Municipal Officials in New Jersey
    http://www.njslom.org/magart_1207_pg18.html

    New Jersey League of Municipalities / Ethics Resource Center
    http://www.njslom.org/ethics_resource_center.html

  • Penny Boudinot

    Even though Mayor Lempert’s spouse now has tenure at Princeton University (he didn’t when she was elected), he is still beholden to the University’s administration in many ways. She should have recused herself from all discussions with her spouse’s employer.

  • GoodGovernment

    Why are our elected officials using private email accounts?Shouldn’t the town have official email accounts that the mayor/council would use for all official business?

    If it’s not required, then the Council should pass a resolution requiring it.

  • Goodgovernance

    All the emails should be public.

    Good government requires it. I can’t believe anyone would argue against it.

    Good job, krystal!

    By the way, please see Spotlight to see another result of annoying petty journalist requests.

  • Defender

    The officials are well aware that their email may be read in an OPRA request. All the juicy stuff is done over the phone anyway. So let the employees get back to their job helping citizens with real issues without having to delay them because of your overly suspicious fishing expedition requests. We will see what miniscule petty story comes out of the request. Sorry no Pulltzer for the Planet.

  • Thankful Taxpayer

    I believe your accusation about responsibility for any cost is misdirected. The meetings & content of meetings should have been made public in the first place. If town officials had acted properly there would be no need to catch up retroactively on providing the public with information the public has a right and a need to have. Whatever cost is involved in providing the public with proper info is not a new cost. Any additional cost of providing the info now retroactively (if there actually is any additional cost) is not on journalists who are keeping government honest, but on the elected officials who did not conduct themselves properly in the first place.

  • Defender

    It is not just the clerk working on these requests. You have secretaries, IT and department specialists that work on these for inordinate amounts of time. You are causing other projects to be delayed by your probing for your own gain. Why don’t you offer to compensate the town if you are so concerned about the town!

  • krystalknapp

    The public records custodian, in this case the clerk, is paid a salary to do a variety of duties, including responding to public records requests from the public and the press. Also, the town has made the choice to lawyer up and have a lawyer review each request, which is not the practice in every town. If officials didn’t use their private email addresses for town business, it would be a much easier task to pull relevant emails from the town’s server. Lastly, it is in the public’s interest to know that the mayor and council president have been having these private meetings with University officials and to know what kinds of topics were discussed.

  • Thankful Taxpayer

    As a taxpayer, I’m more concerned about un-public discourse and decisions made by officials who are paid by my taxes to engage in public and open governing. As a taxpayer, I wish that local government officials had conducted their business in a proper, open manner so that an open records request would not have been necessary to see what they are doing. As a taxpayer, I am more concerned about decisions made (that may well effect my taxes and my town) without visibility to the public than the cost of providing this information to the public now, especially because these should have been public meetings with public records generated anyway, so any additional cost now is just due to the improper actions of local government officials in conducting such meetings in private rather than public. As a taxpayer in this town I greatly appreciate the great resource of local journalism that cares enough to make these kinds of requests of government and who do this kind of reporting so that I know what’s happening with my tax dollars.

  • Defender

    Why doesn’t Planet Princeton request the records of how much time employees have to spend on media witch hunts that never amount to anything. The OPRA laws need to be changed so taxpayers aren’t on the hook for the endless hours of sorting through emails and lawyers fees. You would be surprised how much these local media outlets are costing the taxpayer.

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