January 13, 2021

Princeton’s Boards, Commissions, and Committees Often Help Shape Policies

By Anne Levin

Not long after moving to Princeton from Washington state, Leticia Fraga learned that the only Spanish-speaking staffer in the town’s Human Services department had been laid off due to budgetary reasons. Spanish is Fraga’s native language, and she called the department to volunteer her services. It wasn’t long before a position opened and she joined the staff.

Since that introduction to one of Princeton’s numerous boards, commissions, and committees, or “BCCs,” Fraga has become an influential member of Princeton Council, and was elected its president January 4. “It was when I joined Human Services that I felt like I was part of the community,” she said this week. “Being on a BCC is a way to get to know the community hands-on, and get a feel for how it runs. And it’s a way to help.”

There are 26 boards, commissions, and committees listed on Princeton’s municipal website. From Affordable Housing to Zoning, with Public Transit, Public Art Selection, Planning Board and others in between, these groups count numerous residents of Princeton in their ranks.

“The primary mission of Princeton’s boards, commissions, committees, and task forces is to advise the Princeton Council, the elected policy-making body of the municipality, through direct citizen participation,” reads a BCC handbook that was revised last year. “Although the specific duties and authority of each board, commission, committee, and task force vary widely, there are certain responsibilities common to all board, commission, committee, and task force members.”

For members of the public who want to play a role in shaping policies but aren’t interested in running for office, serving on a BCC is an opportunity to get involved.

“It’s a way to connect to the community,” said Councilwoman Eve Niedergang, who helped revise the BCC handbook. “We’re so lucky to have a community where so many people have a range of useful talents and knowledge, and are willing to volunteer. We have doctors, nurses, people in the pharmaceutical industry – they serve on the Board of Health. That kind of knowledge facing a pandemic is really valuable. Our health officers can draw on them for extra jobs and research.”

Council members serve as liaisons on various BCCs. They cast votes on some. On others, their role is purely advisory. Most committees have been created by the municipality, while commissions and boards are under some, or total, state regulation.

Among the BCCs on which Niedergang serves is the Princeton Environmental Commission. “We have a fabulous group that is really involved in sustainability and preservation efforts,” she said. “They can come with us to ideas about policy, like the ordinance on having backyard chickens, or electric vehicle charging stations. They do a lot of research. They guide us and provide incredible value.”

Policies often originate in BCCs. “One of our BCCs might have identified a need in the community, especially when it comes to quality of life issues,” said Fraga, who serves on the Civil Rights Commission among several others. “They can make a recommendation as a body to the mayor and Council, who can then either adopt what has been proposed or send it back to develop it further and make additional recommendations to Council.”

It was an effort begun by the Civil Rights Commission that prompted Princeton to officially recognize Indigenous People’s Day in 2019. “There are initiatives that are started by the public this way,” said Fraga. “Some residents called for us to mark that day. Mayor and Council sent it back to the Civil Rights Commission to research it and then make recommendations, and that’s how it happened.”

New Mayor Mark Freda values the advice from BCCs. “They all have different responsibilities or areas that they focus on,” he said. “There are so many topics that come in front of the town. The BCCs filter some things, or come up with ideas maybe Council members would not have come up with on their own. It’s a tremendous help to have all those additional resources. There are so many people here who are knowledgeable. You can get experts on many subjects.”

Anyone can apply to become a member of a BCC. There are terms that expire every year, and applications are always open on the municipal website. “People can express what they’re interested in, or even prioritize,” Fraga said. “You do need to be a resident of Princeton. But definitely at the end of the year, we usually have terms that are up.”

“Serving on a BCC is a really exciting way to have your ideas and input heard by a group that can do something about them,” said Niedergang. “Sometimes people start the process by going to a meeting of a BCC they are interested in. They see how it operates. Then they get involved. And under non-COVID circumstances, there is also the fun and community aspect. It provides an opportunity for either your personal passion or professional experience to  have real world implications. You can actually make things happen.”

The BCC handbook is a work in progress. “There is going to be a continuous look at it, how we can improve it, and what guidelines will be established,” said Fraga. “We’ll take a look at whether there should be term limits, and the process we need to follow when filling vacancies. The protocols we follow are not in writing, so we want to make sure it is all transparent.”