January 18, 2012

Unannounced Meeting Illegal But Inadvertent Borough Attorney Says

An unannounced meeting to discuss applicants for Princeton Borough’s representatives on the consolidation transition task force got Mayor Yina Moore and members of the Council into hot water last week. But this violation of the Open Public Meetings Act was not intentional, according to the Borough’s attorney Maeve Cannon.

At Council’s regular meeting last week, Ms. Cannon said that a December 28 meeting of Council members Jo Butler, Jenny Crumiller, and Kevin Wilkes, which was attended by then Mayor-elect Moore and Councilwoman-elect Heather Howard, was an inadvertent violation, since those on the committee may have thought that it was legal because only three council members were present, which would not constitute a quorum. Ms. Moore and Ms. Howard had yet to be sworn in when the meeting took place, but as future members of Council would be voting on the issue.

Councilman Roger Martindell said at the January 10 meeting that the procedure needed to be remedied. He also criticized the criteria for choosing candidates, saying those with an affiliation to Princeton University or residency outside the Borough should not be eliminated. Princeton Township chose its representatives early this month.

The Council has been contacted by about 30 members of the public interested in serving on the committee, said Ms. Butler, though some said they only wanted to volunteer for a subcommittee. Eight candidates were selected as finalists by the Council members. Four people will be selected, including three full members and one alternate.

The eight finalists С Alexi Assmus, Mark Freda, W. Bradford Middlekauff, Bruce M. Topolosky, Patrick Simon, James Levine, Hendricks Davis and Adrienne Kreipke С were subsequently interviewed at an open session of the Council on January 3. Council members Barbara Trelstad, Mr. Wilkes, and Ms. Butler were chosen to select a slate of four candidates from those eight. They were to be voted on at a special meeting last night, January 17.

In other business at the January 10 meeting, the Council was given a preview of its 2012 budget. Maintaining a zero tax rate increase is a goal for the year, chief financial officer Sandra Webb said in an overview of the projected budget. Councilman Martindell, who chairs the Finance Committee, commented that no major initiatives or significant labor contracts are proposed for 2012 as the Borough prepares to merge with Princeton Township.

“The less we do financially, the better, and this budget reflects that,” he said. Mr. Martindell added that the committee will meet with its counterparts in the Township, not only about the 2012 budget but to get a head start on the challenges likely to be posed by consolidation.

Ms. Webb told Council members that the budget proposals are preliminary, since 2011 had yet to be closed out. Figures included a $420,000 increase in spending, or 1.63 percent over 2011. No reduction in state aid is anticipated and department budgets are not being increased.

Since Princeton University has increased its voluntary payment to the Borough by $500,000 for 2012, the Borough will be using less of its operating surplus. Mayor Moore said she thought some of the surplus might be used to provide some relief for property owners who are struggling to pay taxes that rose after the 2010 tax revaluation. Mr. Wilkes suggested some of the money be used to focus on how to improve recyling and trash collection in the downtown area.

Ms. Howard commented that this is the time to make sure the state follows through on its commitment to pay 20 percent of the transition costs. She also suggested that the Borough and Township should send a list of help with budgetary flexibility that might be needed during the consolidation process.

At the meeting, the Council voted to accept Princeton University’s voluntary contributions (PILOT) of $1.7 million. Ms. Trelstad and Mr. Wilkes thanked the University for this increased payment, which includes $250,000 earmarked for transition costs. The University has also agreed to pay $300,000 for the expansion of the firehouse.

Speaking just before the vote, Ms. Butler expressed concerns that not enough was done during the negotiations. “It looks like something that could have been drawn up on the back of an envelope,” she said. Ms. Butler used the City of Boston as an example of how to do it better, saying the city sent a bill to its nonprofit organizations for 25 percent of what they would owe if they were not tax exempt. The Borough’s previous agreement with the University involved more detailed work, she said. “I hope going forward we can have a more comprehensive approach.”

Mayor Moore said she shares Ms. Butler’s concerns. “This opens doors to further the conversation where needs and benefits are assessed and integrated,” she said. “I look forward to furthering that discussion this year.”

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