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Vol. LXV, No. 39
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
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Township Candidates Debate Issues

Ellen Gilbert

The four candidates for Township Committee participated in a live, hour-long debate on Monday evening, televised by Princeton Community TV. Issues concerning consolidation received the lion’s share of attention, with three candidates, Republican challenger Geoff Aton, and Democratic incumbents Bernie Miller and Sue Nemeth supporting it, and second Republican challenger, Mark Scheibner, opposing it, citing a “dangerous” cut in services as a result.

A conversation about the future of the Valley Road Building revealed the recent news that the Board of Education has decided to extend the leases of the building’s current occupants, including Corner House, Princeton Community TV, and Affordable Housing, for another year. The Board is expected to officially approve the plan at its Tuesday evening meeting, after press time.

Mr. Miller’s answers often tapped into his years-long experience in Princeton Township government. Mr. Scheibner emphasized the need for a change from the status quo, while Ms. Nemeth reminded the audience several times of recent Township achievements, noting, in particular, its tax relief efforts. During a conversation about traffic problems Mr. Aton spoke of his family’s recent decision to own only one car, opting to walk and bicycle to most places.

All four candidates ran unopposed in last spring’s primaries. They will vie for two Township Committee seats in the November 8 election, when voters will also vote on consolidation.

In keeping with debate guidelines, moderator Karen Siracusa lives in West Windsor, outside of the Princeton Township voting district. Candidates were seated in alphabetical order by last name, and responded to questions submitted earlier by residents and members of the League.

In their support of consolidation, Mr. Aton, Mr. Miller, and Ms. Nemeth cited the anticipated $3.2 million in savings that would occur with a streamlined government. Mr. Miller, who has supported consolidation since the 1970s, was a member of the commission created to examine this latest effort, and he cited the “exhaustive” studies that were done before the commission came to the conclusion that consolidation would be beneficial to both municipalities. Pointing to a pro-consolidation button she was wearing, Ms. Nemeth, who is currently the Township’s Deputy Mayor, expressed her “wholehearted” support for consolidation, saying that just opting for shared services would result in multi-layered, inefficient departments.

Noting that he began as a proponent of consolidation, Mr. Scheibner said that he became concerned when he “dug into the details of the report.” He described the proposed complement of 51 police officers as “sub par,” especially “with the rise in gangs and drugs.” He described the “weakness” of the Borough form of government, citing “bad decisions” made in recent years.

In response to Mr. Scheibner’s concern about adequate police protection, Mr. Miller noted the “excruciating detail” to which the Consolidation Commission had gone in examining the effects of a combined police department which would, he added, actually result in safer neighborhoods.

In response to Mr. Scheibner’s contention that Borough administration has been historically weak, Mr. Miller pointed to recent mayors like Barbara Sigmund, Marvin Reed, and current Mayor Mildred Trotman as evidence to the contrary.

Mr. Aton cited New Haven as an example of a city that has improved as a result of a “strong figurehead mayor.” Locally, he said, a strong mayor “in a united Princeton” could be more effective in negotiating with Princeton University. Mr. Scheibner suggested the creation of a standing municipal committee that would routinely work with the University on shared concerns.

A question about how the municipalities handled the exigencies of Hurricane Irene found the candidates agreeing that a centralized emergency response system would be better than the two separate current systems that failed to communicate with each other in several instances during te hurricane.

In addition to Princeton Community TV, the debate was sponsored by AllPrinceton and Princeton Area League of Women Voters, and a video of it can be viewed on the websites of all three organizations.

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