In new town, possibility of new ties
The new mayor will play a large role in shaping the future of the new Princeton, especially in influencing the ever-evolving and often contentious relationship between the town and the University.
The three mayoral candidates — Township Deputy Mayor Liz Lempert and Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes ’83 on the Democratic side, and former Borough Councilman and former Township Mayor Richard Woodbridge ’65 on the Republican side — each have strong connections to the University. Wilkes and Woodbridge are alumni, and while Lempert is not a graduate, her husband Ken Norman is a psychology professor.
In interviews, candidates touted their strong relationship with the University as an important aspect of their platform.
Wilkes said that he has had a collaborative relationship with his alma mater and explained that his past experience would be an asset for the community in the future. He cited his work with the University on issues regarding public safety, the Arts and Transit Neighborhood and the Memorandum of Understanding — a document outlining an agreement between University, Borough and Township about the Arts and Transit proposal — as evidence of his ability to accommodate both sides of the town-gown divide.
“Past performance is indicative of future performance,” he said.
University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69, a primary representative of the University in its dealings with the two Princeton municipalities, agreed with Wilkes’ self-assessment. Durkee said that Wilkes’ work with the University within the past year has been especially successful and helpful.
“We have found [Wilkes] to be someone that we can work with very effectively ... with good results,” Durkee said.
Lempert also said her past experience with the University was productive. She acknowledged that while she does not necessarily agree with the University on every issue, she nonetheless wants to continue to forge a constructive, functioning relationship with the University.
Durkee said that the University had not worked closely with Lempert in the past — she has recused herself from many matters involving the University due to the conflict of interest inherent in being married to a faculty member. But he nonetheless noted that she served on the Township Council, a governing body that he said the University has gotten along well with in recent months.
“[Lempert] has certainly been part of a group that we’ve been able to work with very effectively,” Durkee said.
Woodbridge said that while town-gown relations have soured recently, he has had very positive personal experiences at the University. He noted that his good relationship with the school hasn’t changed much since his graduation. From his student days as a class president to his current position as a marshal during Reunions, he remains closely connected to his alma mater.
Furthermore, all three candidates support the University’s proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood, including the controversial moving of the Dinky. Current Borough Mayor Yina Moore ’79 has opposed the move.
Operations research and financial engineering professor Alain Kornhauser, a vocal opponent of the University’s plans to move the Dinky, attributed this commonality between the candidates to a shared fear of standing up to the University, calling any fight with the University “political suicide.”
Durkee took issue with Kornhauser’s sentiment, noting that “there are lots of people who have made political careers in this town running against the University.” Durkee instead explained Woodbridge, Lempert and Wilkes’ common support of University policy as a kind of acknowledgement that “the University really has been a good member of this community.”
“[The candidates] do respect the important contribution the University makes to Princeton,” Durkee said.
The University’s “important contribution,” however, contains a financial component that all three mayoral candidates would like to alter. As part of the voluntary Payment in Lieu of Taxes contribution the University makes to the two municipalities, the Borough currently receives around $1.7 million while the Township gets about $750,000.
Wilkes said that as mayor he would seek to increase the University’s fiscal contribution to consolidated Princeton beyond the combined $2.5 million the Borough and Township currently receive. He said he sees this increase as a means of keeping municipal taxes down while maintaining a steady income for the governing body.
Lempert, meanwhile, doesn’t necessarily plan to seek an increase in voluntary payment from the University. She does, however, see a problem in the current short-term nature of the voluntary payment contracts. She said constant renegotiation of the payments “adds a level of tension and uncertainty that ... is not helpful.”
Ultimately, Lempert wants to negotiate longer-term contracts with the University regarding the payments so that the new municipality can have some certainty in its future financial planning. She further believes that a long-term contract would also go a long way toward strengthening the town-gown relationship.
Woodbridge wants to take an entirely different approach to the University’s financial contribution. He proposes bringing in a state-run task force to review the cumulative fiscal costs and benefits from the University’s influence in town. He said that the outside investigative group would provide a more comprehensive review, free from the local politics that might otherwise taint town-gown financial negotiations.
“There’s no other fair way to do it,” Woodbridge said.
Beyond the financial issues outlined above, Wilkes, Lempert and Woodbridge each plan to work with the University on various matters they believe need to be addressed.
Lempert said she would seek to make the University recognize that “the town has a strong desire to preserve the things that make [Princeton] a great place to live.” She believes the University wrongly sees the town as “obstructionist,” while in fact local residents simply “don’t want to see radical changes and also want to feel in control of the change that does happen.”
Wilkes said he viewed University expansion into the Princeton community as the primary source of town-gown tension, and believes that dialogue on this issue will greatly strengthen its relationship going forward.
If elected, he said he would ask the University to reveal its plans for long-term expansion into the community, allowing Princeton residents time to debate and examine the University’s plans. While he doesn’t wish to deny the University’s expansion needs, he said he wants make sure the school does so while taking into account the needs of the community as a whole.
Woodbridge also proposed encouraging more extensive dialogue between town and gown. He explained that he would like the new Princeton to be more proactive in its dealings with the University, making sure that the new municipality and University meet regularly in order “to get a sense of where [the University] is going before they get there.”
“It’s time for the municipality to take the lead ... rather than finding out what one of the major town actors has decided to do afterward,” Woodbridge said.
All three candidates clearly plan to work to change certain aspects of the University’s dealings with the new municipality. Durkee, however, doesn’t ultimately envision drastic changes to University policy as a result of the elections.
“The three candidates in this race ... are all people that we have been able to work with very productively,” Durkee said. “Whoever wins this race, there will be a mayor that we will be able to work very well with.”