June 8, 2022

Carefully Curated Focus Groups Are Not the Same as Public Meetings

To the Editor,

In the recent article regarding the demolition of the historic Tennent, Roberts, and Whiteley gymnasium buildings [“Neighbors of Seminary Raise Concerns about Demolition of Buildings,” June 1, page 1], a Princeton Theological Seminary representative stated that the demolition has been “thoughtfully planned and will be carefully executed to minimize disruption to the neighborhood.” Unfortunately, the town has been unresponsive to requests to meet with neighbors to discuss exactly what precautions may be in place to deal with asbestos and other airborne contaminates, removal of debris, contaminated soil, truck traffic, and storm water management.

This is in stark contrast to the way in which other significant demolitions have been managed. When AvalonBay planned to demolish the old hospital, they met multiple times with neighbors, and the town provided additional services, such as air quality monitors, to reassure neighbors that the demolition would be conducted to the highest standards. Princeton University also met multiple times in public with neighbors to discuss the demolition of the Butler tract. It is disappointing that the Mercer Hill/Frog Hollow neighbors are being treated differently, but perhaps it is due to confusion around who actually owns the properties now – Herring Properties or the Seminary.

Another curiosity is the plan proposed by Jamie Herring of Herring Properties to hold “small focus groups” that will be managed by a PR firm hired by his company. These “anonymous” and “confidential” focus groups are scheduled to begin in July, a period when many are on vacation. I respect Mr. Herring’s right to spend money in any way he sees fit, but hiring a PR firm, with fealty to him, not to the public, to hold focus groups, not public meetings, should not supplant the responsibility of the town to hold their own public, transparent meetings that are protected by the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). Hiring a “brand journalist” is private enterprise strategy. Holding small, anonymous, and confidential focus groups may be valuable to his company internally, but this should not be confused with a democratic process.

Carefully curated focus groups are not the same as a public meeting. As a former elected official, I view unvarnished public participation as a fundamental right of citizens — even though it can be messy at times. But it isn’t just my view; it is the law. I sincerely hope that ubiquitous virtual meetings haven’t caused us to lose sight of what constitutes public input and a democratic process. I take Councilman Cohen at his word, and I look forward to the town’s announcement regarding their plans for a public, collaborative, and inclusive process soon.

Jo Butler
Hibben Road