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Hospital Neighborhood Residents Continue to Call for a Public Record

Matthew Hersh

Two residents representing the sentiments of about 20 hospital neighborhood residents appeared before Township Committee Monday night with a continued call to the Princeton Health Care Task Force to act in a more public fashion and to supply residents with a public record of its meetings.

The residents, Heidi Fichtenbaum of Carnahan Place and Hendricks Davis of John Street, said that because the task force will make recommendations to municipal bodies it represents, it should be subjected to the same open public meetings mandates as several other municipal bodies.

Commonly known as the "Sunshine Law," the Open Public Meetings Act requires all municipal bodies involved in a vote to make public notice and public record of its hearings. Municipalities can apply the law to advisory boards that hold no voting capacity, but are not required to do so. One advisory board that is required to post notice under the Sunshine Law is the Site Plan Review Advisory Board of the Princeton Regional Planning Board (SPRAB).

When the trustees of Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS) voted last Monday night to pursue plans to move the hospital to a location six to eight miles from its current site, the task force, an advisory board composed of local planning, zoning, health and elected officials, took on a new role as an advisory board to the Princeton Regional Planning Board. Prior to that, it had facilitated the public process through which the PHCS could publicly present details of either on-site expansion, or off-site relocation to a campus no less than 50 acres at a cost of about a quarter of a billion dollars.

Now that the hospital has made a decision ‹ one that was "consistent" with the task force's recommendation ‹ the task force will now serve to make recommendations to the planning board as to how to achieve redevelopment of the sites that the PHCS will inevitably vacate, namely the 11.76 main campus at 253 Witherspoon Street and the nine-acre Merwick Rehab campus on Bayard Lane.

So why is the task force, an advisory board to the planning board, not subjected to the same mandates as SPRAB ‹ also a planning board advisory entity?

"SPRAB is a sub-committee, not an ad hoc advisory board to the planning board," said Township attorney Edwin Schmierer, who is not affiliated with the task force. Regardless of how major the application, in this case, what to do with acres of vacant land in downtown Princeton, the task force is lower on the "pecking chain" than SPRAB.

With SPRAB, "there are much more technical review issues in order to streamline the development process," Mr. Schmierer said, making the advisory board more applicable to the Sunshine Law, he added.

He said that recommendations made by the hospital task force will ultimately have to go through the public zoning and planning processes.

But Ms. Fichtenbaum, as stated in a January 18 letter to the editor, maintains that because the task force will make recommendations to the entities it represents, all of its meetings should be made public. She said that the task force is, effectively, making recommendations to itself.

"It's clear to me that the loop is inappropriately closed," she said Monday night.

The task force is expected to release its final recommendation to the public regarding the hospital's relocation efforts sometime this month.

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