Residents of Princeton had two debates to watch last Thursday evening, and timing was all. Before tuning in to see the 9 p.m. vice presidential debate, many people headed over to the Jewish Center of Princeton at 7:30 p.m. to hear candidates Liz Lempert and Dick Woodbridge talk about what each of them believes they would bring to the office of mayor of the “new,” consolidated Princeton in 2013.
The level of discourse between the two candidates remained highly civil during the hour-long debate, and the moderator’s performance could not be faulted. Barbara Trout, a League of Women Voters representative from Burlington County, was poised and congenial as she gave the candidates their instructions and read questions that had been written earlier that evening on index cards distributed to members of the audience. Princeton Community TV videotaped the debate, which has been made available on their website (www.princetontv.org).
As they have on other occasions, Mr. Woodbridge used his answers to emphasize the breadth of his experience as a former Township mayor and Borough Council president, while Ms. Lempert focused on the more recent achievements of Township Committee, where she has served for four years as a member, and deputy mayor.
The candidates differed on a number of issues, including the significance of national elections on local politics; the disposition of the Valley Road School building; and how each of them proposed to keep taxes flat.
Mr. Woobridge suggested that it would be “a mistake” to allow national politics to interfere with local issues that tend toward the more mundane business of doing things like fixing potholes. Ms. Lempert, who coordinated the local campaign for President Obama in 2008, said that national platforms on issues like affordable housing and environmental concerns do “translate at the local level.”
In discussing the Valley Road Building, Ms. Lempert emphasized the fact that since they own it, its future is up to the school district. While she allowed that being directly across from Township Hall makes it a valuable piece of real estate that might work as a community center, she concluded by suggesting that “we need to figure out the finances.”
“Use it or lose it,” said Mr. Woodbridge in his more pointed response. Describing the building as looking “like a crack house,” he faulted the school district for its failure to maintain it and for the Board’s unwillingness to accept a “free offer” that would have turned the Valley Road Building into a community center.
“I can guarantee there will be no new taxes introduced in 2013,” said Ms. Lempert in answer to the question of maintaining flat taxes. “We’ve done it for the last two years,” she said, referring to Township Committee and citing the “invaluable” work of the Township’s Citizens Advisory Group.
Mr. Woodbridge proposed that municipal finances be treated “as a real business,” and noted recent conversations he has had with Borough Administrator Robert Bruschi and Township Acting Administrator and Chief Financial Officer Kathy Monzo. He said that he would look forward to creating budgets that were not based on preceding years, and to ask for other players, like Mercer County and the school district, to seek cost reductions.
In response to Mr. Woodbridge’s frequent references to his experiences with, and desire for non-partisanship in the next Princeton government, Ms. Lempert pointed out that “almost every” current “board and commission has Republican representation.” Both candidates acknowledged the importance of tourism in Princeton, and the need to find new ways to support it. Mr. Woodbridge suggested that town-gown relations have “deteriorated” in recent years. His own recent meeting with University Vice President Bob Durkee and Director of Community and Regional Affairs Kristen Appelget, said Mr. Woodbridge, should be a precedent for regular meetings in the future. In response, Ms. Lempert cited Township Committee’s recent success in negotiating a voluntary payment from the University in lieu of taxes.
While Mr. Woodbridge spoke of his three main credentials for being mayor as “experience, experience, and experience,” Ms. Lempert noted hers: “current experience.”