I have served for six years on the Human Services Commission (HSC), three of them as chair. I am writing this letter to oppose the new ordinance for the consolidation of the commissions and board into one Community Services Advisory Committee.
The main argument for the consolidation is that the current structure represents an ‘outdated paradigm’ because each commission is focused or is ‘siloed’ on its own area of expertise without paying attention to possible crossover issues, which somehow is bad for effective public policy?
The ordinance’s argument rests on the mere existence of three boards and commissions that somehow prevent the mayor, council, and municipal staff from doing efficient work. However, it is not clear to what extent 29 members of the community, most of whom are dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers, are preventing public officials from doing a better job.
The Human Services Commission has worked on several initiatives and has successfully collaborated with other boards and commissions. Just to mention a few, we were instrumental in helping put together the Housing Stability Collision, the Food Insecurity Task Force, and the Tenants Rights Workshop. Furthermore, our immigration committee addressed the challenges faced by our immigrant population and built trust in our underrepresented communities. In collaboration with local police, non-profit organizations as well as local leaders, many resources were offered.
A major project led by the Human Services Commission was the Princeton Community Needs Assessment, which focused on how Princeton addressed community needs during the pandemic in the hopes of preparing for future challenges. The assessment involved the participation of 51 community partners representing 31 organizations. In December 2022 the assessment, policy recommendations, and suggested next steps were presented to the mayor and council. The assessment involved Princeton non-profit organizations, Princeton University staff, members of the Princeton community, and staff from the Princeton Human Services office. Following the assessment, the Human Services Commission reorganized its committee structure to work on the next steps, one of which was an initiative to address mental health issues in the community.
Unfortunately, the initiatives and efforts were not approved by our Council liaison. The reason was that the Princeton Community Needs Assessment was a “mere presentation” and not a council-approved project. This was made clear by Councilwoman Leticia Fraga and Mayor Mark Freda in a meeting with me as the Human Services Commission Chair and Ericka Deglau, a former vice-chair and Professor Emeritus of Social Work at Rutgers University. This was odd since we assumed that it was part of our job as members of the commission and it was work sanctioned by the council given the presence of its liaison.
The boards and commissions as they currently stand are the voice of the community. Their input is essential to the policy-making process as they focus on specialized, narrow, and yes siloed topics that public officials do not see or do not have the time to attend. It is not the job of the boards and commissions to see the big picture or to make policy but rather to raise alarms on issues that have an impact on the community and help public officials do a better job by being proactive and developing initiatives that help understand the needs of the community in both the short and long terms.
The boards and commissions do have issues, but those should be addressed by having an honest conversation among commissioners, elected officials, and municipal staff. In the end, we all want the same thing – a community that thrives and embraces its diversity. The needs are many, and no single individual or group has the answer to all the issues. We must work together by supporting and strengthening community engagement in public affairs, not weakening it.