In a move that would consolidate more power among municipal staff and the governing body, the Princeton Council is slated to vote on disbanding the municipality’s civil rights commission, human services commission, and affordable housing board, combining all three into one seven-member advisory board called the community services advisory committee. The governing body is also slated to eliminate the municipal sewer committee.
According to the ordinance disbanding the sewer committee, the functions of the committee are now carried out by the town’s sewer engineer and the Princeton Council’s infrastructure and operations committee, so the sewer committee is no longer needed.
Representatives of the human services commission, civil rights commission, and affordable housing board found out Friday night at 7:30 p.m. that the council was seeking to disband their groups. The council is slated to introduce an ordinance at 7 p.m. tonight, Jan. 8, to disband the groups and create the new single committee. Meanwhile the town’s affordable housing commission meeting slated for Tuesday has been canceled.
If you attend the council meeting to comment about the proposed move, you should know that members of the public are not allowed to comment when ordinances are introduced. Under Mayor Mark Freda and the current Princeton Council, the ability to comment when ordinances are introduced was taken away. Residents either have to wait until the public hearing during the second reading of the ordinance or comment during the general public comment period near the beginning of the meeting.
It is common for municipalities to have affordable housing boards. West Windsor, Lawrence, Hopewell Township, and South Brunswick are some of the area municipalities that have an affordable housing board. Those four towns also have separate advisory councils or committees to address diversity and racial equity. Some towns call the group a human relations council while others call it it an equity advisory committee.
Princeton has a human services commission unlike many other towns because it has its own human services department. All of the other municipalites in Mercer County instead rely on the county human services department for services.
The council is seeking to disband the groups and form one single advisory board in the name of efficiency to “enhance the collaboration that is critical to providing the best possible services to the Princeton community by replacing an outdated paradigm in which BCCs (boards, committees, and commissions) are siloed by topic area and moving instead towards an integrated approach,” according to the ordinance.
Officials argue that because municipal staffing advised by the boards, committees and commission has become more robust in recent years, staff have more capacity to do the work and the citizen groups aren’t needed.
The 29 members of the three committees being disbanded can apply for seven spots on the new committee. Under the proposed ordinance, there are also two alternates, and two council liaisons to the committee.
“A combined committee could more directly serve as an advisory group to the Council as originally intended,” reads the ordinance. “The supercommittee can be staffed with candidates with broader perspectives on all issues impacting equity, civil rights, social services, and affordable housing.”
The objective of the combined committee, according to the ordinance, is to help the Princeton Council and staff “foster collaboration and dialogue among key community stakeholders, recommend policies and initiatives that advance equity and improve the lives of all residents, and foster an environment of inclusion, empathy, and empowerment, by championing accessible
human services, affordable housing, and the advancement of civil rights as essential pillars of a just and equitable society.”
The committee is only an advisory committee to the mayor and council and has no authority to take its own positions or guide municipal staff. The committee can form subcommittees but all subcommittee members must be members of the committee.
Officials claim that recruiting people to serve on committees is a problem. Yet residents who serve on the committees say there has never been a shortage of residents willing to serve. The membership of some committees has been expanded to accomodate more people being able to participate, for example, another seat was added to the housing board a few years ago.
Some members of commissions and boards said they have resigned over the past few years due to frustrations dealing with the governing body and concerns about some governing body members wanting them to serve as a rubber stamp for the governing body. A few members and former members of the commissions, boards and committees have shared anecdotes about being told to “fall into line” with council desires and not make waves or their groups would be eliminated like the town’s site plan review advisory committee (SPRAB) was. Officials promised SPRAB would swiftly be replaced with another committee but it never was.
Planet Princeton has reached out to Freda and Council President Mia Sacks about the consolidation of the three groups. Sacks, who serves on the municipal governance committee with Michelle Pirone Lambros and Even Niedergang, said it would be premature for her to comment on the ordinance since it has not been introduced yet. She deferred comment to council members Leticia Fraga and Leighton Newlin.
Fern Spruill, an African American leader in the Princeton community who heads the town’s civil rights commission, said she was totally blindsided by the email that was sent to commission members Friday night. Spruill wrote an editorial about the consolidation move urging the council to reconsider.
Spruill said the two commissions and the board already struggle to deal with the challenges they face without support from the governing body. A single commission with no additional resources would be overwhelmed with three times its current responsibility.
“No one talked to community members or commission members before making this move. We fought hard to get the civil rights commission back in Princeton. They then tried to tie our hands, and now they want to just squash the commission altogether,” Spruill said. “We are all just trying to serve our community as volunteers. Our council liaison is always blocking us, and has threatened us about falling in line with their orders. They can’t handle opposition or questioning. If you can’t handle someone challenging what you are trying to do, something is very wrong.”
Full text of the letter sent to volunteers for the commissions and board
January 5, 2024
Sent via email
RE: BCC Consolidation
Dear BCC Members,
I want to take this moment to express my profound gratitude for your dedication and invaluable contributions to the Human Services Commission, Affordable Housing Board, or Civil Rights Committee. Your commitment and hard work have been valued and appreciated.
Over the last decade, Princeton has made significant strides to consolidate municipal operations and reorganize staff. And in 2024, we plan to continue to enhance Princeton’s performance by reorganizing BCCs in a strategic way that aligns with the municipality’s goals and the needs of the Princeton community.
As part of our ongoing efforts to promote social justice, equity, and greater inclusivity in Princeton, I am excited to announce that Monday’s agenda includes an ordinance that would create a new advisory committee to be known as the Community Services Advisory Committee. This committee would consolidate human services, affordable housing, and civil rights into a single focus, ensuring a more efficient use of volunteer and staff time. The proposed
committee would be made of up of 7 regular members and 2 alternate members, which would enable it to operate with greater efficacy. In addition, the consolidation of perspectives from diverse topic areas would allow the committee to provide impactful consultation, fact-gathering, and advisory support to the Division of Health and Community Services as it administers and expands its community services to the residents of Princeton.
I hope you will continue to support our mission by sharing your passion, knowledge, and expertise with us. If the Council votes to form the proposed Community Services Advisory Committee, I encourage you to apply for membership.
Jeffrey C. Grosser