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Vol. LXV, No. 47
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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What They Learned, What Lies Ahead: Consolidation Commission Convenes

Ellen Gilbert

In its first meeting since the election that ratified the consolidation of the Township and the Borough, the Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission talked on Monday evening about what it had learned from its 16-month-long experience, and where the process might take them now.

Chair Anton Lahnston noted the importance of “documenting” the transition as it goes forward, and of offering feedback to the State on directives that ought to be revisited.

Among the municipalities’ first charges as they move toward consolidation is the appointment of a transition team comprised of two elected officials and four citizen representatives from each municipality (three members and one alternate). [See the letter from mayors Goerner, Trotman, and mayor-elect Moore in today’s Mailbox.]

In an update on the budget, Mr. Lahnston reported that the Commission had, to date, spent $89,030 out of a total budget of $129,174. He acknowledged the surplus, but suggested that since the Commission will continue to exist, the remaining money would find use. There was some laughter at this, and the question of whether, how long, and to what ends the Commission would continue was a much returned-to theme during the evening.

The phrase “structurally aligned” came up a number of times as Commission members described why this year’s attempt to get a majority consensus on consolidation succeeded, where others in the past have failed. Commission member David Goldfarb cited shared services and similar debt loads as providing a “fiscally favorable” climate. “While we did an excellent job of laying out the discussion, something happened in the minds of the voters this time,” said Mr. Goldfarb, suggesting that the downturn in the economy has “everyone more financially attuned to the cost of government.”

Other members noted the presence of the digital environment, which did not exist in previous years, but now enabled the wide and swift dissemination of information, particularly through the Commission’s own website. The transparency of the process, which included responding to public concerns from the Commission’s inception, was also lauded.

“The reality is that I learned through this process the real power of public engagement,” observed Center for Governmental Research consultant Joe Stefko, noting that he had participated in 18 similar studies since 1998.

“The members of this commission ensured from the beginning that this was a community dialog; they did more listening than talking.”

Commission member Ryan Lilienthal said that the Township and the Borough “did a good job” with the people they chose for the Commission. He wondered, however, if the process would have been “more successful” without the State’s limitations on the type of government the new entity could have. “We would have structured it in a more flexible, meaningful way,” he noted.

“The fairness issues in the state can actually get in the way of this process,” agreed Commission member Patrick Simon. “We’re very lucky that our communities were very similar.” Communities that might benefit from consolidation but “are very different” might “find it more difficult,” he added. Despite the Princetons’ similarity, Commission members seemed largely to be in favor of a redistricting effort that would bring neighborhoods together.

Mr. Lanston made a point of acknowledging the contributions of each member of the Commission. While their future roles may be unclear, it was agreed that their knowledge of the workings of both governments would be invaluable as the transition process continues. Commission members noted that staff in both municipalities should be included in discussions, and Borough Administrator Bob Bruschi, who, along with Township Administrator Jim Pascale, was present at the meeting, described the Administrators’ willingness to help. “We’ve shared and worked together all along,” he commented.

A Summary Report of the work and Recommendations of the Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission is available at cgr.org/princeton. Printed copies of the report are also available in the Clerk’s Office. Those unable to go to the Clerk’s Office may call (609) 924-5704 to a request a copy. 

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