June 20, 2012

“All Eyes Are on Princeton” As Students Document Consolidation

Once Princeton voters approved consolidation last November, Anton Lahnston began thinking about how to document the process of combining two communities into one. The chairman of the Consolidation and Shared Services Study Commission, Mr. Lahnston knew that the joining of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough, through the efforts of the Transition Task Force created for the job, presented a unique opportunity.

“In November and December, people were saying that Princeton is breaking new ground,” he recalled this week. “So I said, here is an opportunity С really more of an obligation С that the community has to tell this story.”

From experience, Mr. Lahnston felt strongly that waiting to tell that story until the process was over was not the way to proceed. So he took measures to get the job done “in real time,” he said. He first approached the State of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) for funding. While they applauded his idea, they were not able to provide financing.

So Mr. Lahnston began to look around for alternatives. What he found, eventually, was a group of students from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The five-member group of interns, headed by Princeton native Logan Clark, has been on the job ever since, attending meetings of the Task Force and keeping records of the complex process. They are volunteering their time and receiving no course credit.

The students are currently scattered across the country during the University’s summer break, working on various internships, and will pick up the story when they return in the fall. For Mr. Clark, who is interning at the State Department in Washington, the process so far has been informative, though the group is still in the information-gathering phase of the project. “We’re really trying to suspend judgement for the immediate future,” he said. “We’re keeping open minds, trying to soak up as much information as we can while it is still fresh in the minds of the people involved.”

Advising the students is Heather Howard, a Borough Council member and a lecturer in Public Affairs and director, State Health Reform Assistance Network, at the Woodrow Wilson School. “For the students, this is an exciting way to see government at work,” Ms. Howard said. “All eyes are on Princeton now. This may be the closest they actually get to government in action, and I think it’s been really interesting for them.”

The students are tracking the key subcommittees of the Transition Task Force. They have met with the DCA as well as with State representatives about how to shape their work. They have also talked with a consultant from CGR (the Center for Governmental Research Inc.). “The State wants to make sure this gets written up in a way that will be helpful to other communities,” Ms. Howard added. “We hope our story helps other communities thinking about taking on consolidation.”

Mr. Clark was appointed chair of the community service and pro bono consulting group of the graduate student government at the Woodrow Wilson School in January. Through family friends in Princeton, he met Borough Council member Barbara Trelstad and Mr. Lahnston, who told him about the need for documenting the consolidation process. Interested, Mr. Clark put together a team. They have been meeting regularly since last April.

The project has provided a rare opportunity to view municipal government at work. “Sitting in on meetings and combing through the various minutes posted on line, it can be a bit perplexing,” Mr. Clark said. “I don’t have a whole lot of experience in local government, but I think I could say that given the magnitude of the endeavor and the degree of difficulty, they are doing a fairly good job. A lot of them are professionals in other fields, volunteering their time. They are proceeding, actually, at a fairly quick rate. In many cases, Princeton is an exemplary town. We’re trying to extract the lessons and best practices that can be gleaned.”

While the group isn’t able to take on every issue involved in the Transition Task Force process, they are documenting the major issues. “It won’t take into account every detail, but it is something that will stand them in good stead in terms of their own learning,” said Mr. Lahnston. “This is complex, there is no question about it. There are a lot of moving parts, a ton of individuals involved, and a lot of egos and political agendas, and you’ve got to work through all of that. It’s a great opportunity for them.”

The students hope to make their documentation something that appeals to a wide audience by weaving in some narrative and story lines as they go along. “Ultimately, we want this to become something people want to read,” said Mr. Clark. “It shouldn’t be just for some esoteric audience. We want other citizens to be able to read this and have something that is engaging in format. We want it to be approachable for people of any professional background.”