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Vol. LXII, No. 9
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
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Benchley to Resign; Vacancy Opens Spot on Borough Council

Matthew Hersh

Councilwoman Wendy Benchley, the two-term Democrat who has advocated for open space and increased safeguards along the Route 206 corridor during her incumbency, will resign from Borough Council at the end of March, leaving a vacancy on the six-member Council, and setting in motion an appointment process that will likely have interested candidates seeking an early spot on the governing body.

Ms. Benchley said in an interview Tuesday that she plans to leave public office to devote her energy to ocean conservation and environmental advocacy, a lifelong pursuit that she expects will become a full-time endeavor.

The former county freeholder said her retirement from public office meant a marked change after more than a decade in the public spotlight. “It’s something I’ve done for so long, and it’s been such a privilege to work with the citizens of Princeton.

“I’ve loved it, but I just can’t do justice to my conservation work and to the Borough if I’m doing both, and so I have decided that I need to leave Council in order to do whatever small bit I can to help with environmental issues,” she said.

Ms. Benchley had previously served on the Environmental Defense Fund board (now Environmental Defense) for more than 15 years. She and her late husband Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, were also intensely involved in shark, environmental, and oceanic causes right up to Mr. Benchley’s death in 2006.

“I would really like to get back to it, and that’s where I am right now,” Ms. Benchley said.

Because Ms. Benchley has not given an official date or a formal letter of resignation to Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman, the race for who will take her seat remains on hold. Once Ms. Benchley submits her letter, the municipal committee of the party of the resigning member, in this case the Princeton Borough Democratic Committee, will have 15 days to produce three nominees for consideration to Borough Council. At that point, Council will have 15 days to make an appointment from those three nominees to carry out the remainder of Ms. Benchley’s term, which would expire January 1, 2010.

Ms. Benchley’s resignation will likely coincide with any endorsement vote by the Princeton Community Democratic Organization, slated for March 30. There are two seats up for reelection this year, currently held by David Goldfarb and Barbara Trelstad. Neither has announced if they would be running for reelection yet.

Kevin Wilkes, the Borough resident who sought appointment to Council in 2005, when Ms. Trotman was named mayor following Mayor Joe O’Neill’s death, is said to be interested in filling out the term, having considered a run for a full term in November. When asked for comment Tuesday, Mr. Wilkes stopped short of declaring a candidacy: “I want to congratulate Wendy on her significant and important accomplishments on Council and this is a time for us to take pride in her achievements.” He did, however, add that he would consider it “an honor and challenge to follow in her footsteps.”

Further complicating the matter is the status of Andrew Koontz, the two-term Democratic Councilman who also chairs the Princeton Borough Democratic Committee. Mr. Koontz announced last month that he would seek election to the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders in November, but because of the vacancy created when current Freeholder Elizabeth Muoio was tapped to direct the county office of Economic Development and Sustainability, an appointment would be required to fill her seat. If Mr. Koontz were selected to fill her seat at the Mercer County Democratic Convention on March 15, then there would effectively be two vacancies to consider on Council. Potential candidates for the freeholder seat include: Mr. Koontz, Mike Maloney of Hamilton, John Cimino of Hamilton, and Alysia Welch Chester of Trenton.

Ms. Benchley’s resignation will also create an open spot on the Regional Planning Board of Princeton. Her seat on the board as the Borough Council representative would likely be filled through a recommendation from Ms. Trotman.

Township Committeeman Chad Goerner, who worked with Ms. Benchley on the Route 206 Vision Plan, said that news of her resignation was “bittersweet.

“The work we’ve done truly allowed the Township and Borough to work together for a common cause.”

Ms. Benchley said she would like to stay involved in town affairs.

“I’ve been so engaged in important town-wide issues here, and I certainly hope to stay involved in whatever issues I can locally, as well as staying involved in what is important to me,” she said.

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