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Hospital Task Force Violates State Law, Some Residents Claim

Matthew Hersh

A municipal advisory board created to offer recommendations that are expected to help determine the future of the Princeton HealthCare System has now come under fire by a group of residents who say the board is in violation of state open public meeting laws.

Members of Borough Council and Township Committee received a letter last week expressing resident concerns that the board has violated the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act, commonly known as the "Sunshine Law." The letter, written by Hendricks Davis of John Street and Heidi Fichtenbaum of Carnahan Place, also appears in today's Town Topics. The two were writing on behalf of about 20 residents who convened at a neighborhood meeting last week.

The two residents had previously suggested that the task force process was not transparent enough and should have representation from the community, particularly regarding the future plans of the University Medical Center at Princeton on Witherspoon Street, a major regional health care facility and employer.

The Sunshine Law essentially requires that any time a public body meets in an official capacity involving public business, there must be adequate advance notice of that gathering, either through an "annual notice," or a "48-hour notice." Additionally, more than half of the members of that body, a quorum, must be present.

However, the Sunshine Law only relates to governmental bodies assembled for a vote that would impact the community. The task force, composed of elected, planning, and zoning officials, functions merely in an advisory capacity and will not vote on the hospital's future. The ultimate decision will come from the hospital's Board of Trustees, which is widely expected to make a decision on relocation or expansion in the coming week.

Hospital spokesperson Carol Norris said that the senior management of Princeton HealthCare System will recommend to the Board of Trustees next Monday that the "board make a decision regarding its preference to further explore one of the options that have been developed regarding the replacement of the hospital facilities." These options include, she added, either renovating and expanding the hospital at its current site, or rebuilding the hospital at a location "within six to eight miles of the current site."

Despite the fact that the hospital, rather than the municipal task force, will make the final decision about its future, the hospital trustees are expected to seriously consider the task force's recommendations. It is because of this understanding that Mr. Davis and Ms. Fichtenbaum, who represent the Borough and Township respectively, have determined that the open public meetings laws are applicable.

"The [task force] cannot be considered purely an Œadvisory body' engaged in Œinformal discussions'," the letter reads. "The task force [comprises] members who have previously been appointed by mayors of the Borough and Township from several official regulatory and planning commissions of both municipalities.

"The [task force] is in essence undertaking the preliminary work that will determine the reshaping of a critical part of the community's master plan and will make recommendations based upon the inputs received from the hospital, the public, and other stakeholders in the community."

But Edwin Schmierer, Township attorney, asserted that the task force was not subject to the Sunshine Law. "They're helping make recommendations, there's no final decision-making power: it's really not a body that is governed or defined as a public entity, so legally, there's no requirement for them to follow the [mandates] of the Open Public Meetings Act."

However, he added, Committee and Council could "certainly direct the [task force] to behave" as a public entity.

Ms. Fichtenbaum plans to appear at Township Committee's January 31 meeting to make her case. In a separate interview, she said she felt that the process has been going on without public input and suggested that there should also be a public record made for those who cannot attend the task force meetings.

Calling the process a "closed loop," Ms. Fichtenbaum also worried that the task force would be making recommendations that would ultimately have to be approved by the planning and zoning bodies it represents.

When the task force first convened last April, hospital representatives made it clear that issues related to health care and physical development would be public, but that issues concerning real estate acquisition and value were to be kept private. This would explain why some task force meetings are not held in public.

The sale of the land at 253 Witherspoon and the Merwick Rehab site on Bayard Lane is crucial to Princeton HealthCare System if it chooses to build a campus elsewhere. With a potential capital campaign in the area of $220 million, PHCS would clearly hope to get top dollar for its land. While Princeton University has been seen as a likely suitor, it has also been pointed out that the hospital would make the most profitable sale if the site were to remain as some type of care facility, as it is already equipped to be.

To date, the task force has held four public forums at Township Hall and has met privately with hospital representatives. The public meetings have explored the ramifications of both on-site expansion and off-site relocation. The task force also publicly examined what would re-occupy the 11.76 acre site. Those recommendations for possible uses of the site ranged from a hotel/conference center, residential housing, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC), institutional use such as graduate student apartments or University faculty housing, or a mixed use of housing, shops, and parking.

A regional hospital, the University Medical Center of Princeton's primary service area stretches as far as Jamesburg, Hightstown, Pennington, and Skillman. Its secondary service area extends from Trenton to Somerset.

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