In college town, potential conflicts of interest permeate politics
Both candidates on the ballot for Princeton mayor this November have spouses who are employed by the University, bringing into question how much of a conflict of interest is significant enough to interfere with college-town governing.
Because of their personal connections to the University, whichever candidate is elected will likely have to recuse him or herself from votes related to the University, such as zoning and building applications filed on the University’s behalf. Both of the mayoral candidates have previously served in mayoral governing capacities while their spouses were working for the University and thus have prior experience navigating the possibilities for personal conflicts.
Democratic candidate Liz Lempert, who is currently the deputy mayor of the Township, is married to tenured psychology professor Kenneth Norman. While serving in the Township government, she has recused herself from votes relating to the University.
Republican candidate Richard Woodbridge ’65, her opponent in the mayoral race, is a local attorney and is married to the University’s director of community relations, Karen Woodbridge. Karen Woodbridge ultimately works for University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69, who oversees the University’s relationship with the Borough and Township.
Though a marriage between the leader of a town and a University liaison to the town may seem to be a conflict of interest, Karen Woodbridge’s job does not involve any government relations work.
In a 2006 University press release announcing her appointment, her job function was defined as “representing the University in the community, especially outside of governmental and regulatory venues.”
Karen Woodbridge declined to comment for this story, deferring to her husband, who said in an interview that his wife’s duties largely concern the organizing of community events. Director of Community and Regional Affairs Kristen Appelget leads the University’s relationship with local governments.
Woodbridge suggested that, if he wins, his wife may retire, after having worked at the University for 25 years.
“We’re all at the age where we could retire if we wanted to,” Woodbridge said. “Most of our peers are retired.”
Despite the potential conflicts, both candidates have a history of service in local government and have previously grappled with their University affiliation.
Woodbridge served on the Township Committee for one year and was mayor of the Township from 1991 to 1992. Though his wife was working in the University’s Office of Community and Regional Affairs during his term as mayor, Woodbridge said he didn’t know of a time when he recused himself from a vote because of her position.
“I can't recall any particular instances when it actually came up,” Woodbridge said. He explained that the only time he had to recuse himself for any reason was when the governing body was considering a zoning application for a lot nearby his home in the early 1990s. This recusal was in no way related to the University or to his wife’s position, he said.
During Lempert’s term as deputy mayor, she has recused herself several times from issues relating to the University. In November, Lempert recused herself from a vote on the University’s zoning plan for the planned Arts and Transit Neighborhood. Lempert did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The University requires its employees to disclose conflicts of interest relevant to their work, University Spokesman Martin Mbugua explained on behalf of the Office of General Counsel.
Local officials recuse themselves voluntarily on issues to which they have a personal connection, but they could have complaints filed against them if they do not recuse themselves on compromising issues.
Conflicts of interest in municipal government are regulated by the New Jersey Local Government Ethics Law, which states that “no local government officer or employee shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he, a member of his immediate family or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties.”
The ethics law is enforced by New Jersey’s Local Finance Board. If the board were to find that an official did not recuse himself from a vote on which their situation put him in a conflict of interest, the board could fine the official.
When an official’s impartiality on a particular issue is in question, the board’s decisions would be based on how the results of the vote might impact the official personally.
“What the ethics law seeks to prevent is the appearance of an elected official having their vote influenced one way or another because of reasons other than policy,” Matthew Weng, a staff attorney at the New Jersey League of Municipalities, explained.
Legal precedent supports the enforcement of this law. In 1960, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed a decision made by the Borough Council to take over blighted land for redevelopment because of the council members’ personal stake in the case. Four members of that council were University employees.
“We realize that the effect of this decision may be to limit the number of employees of Princeton University who may sagely hold certain offices in municipal government,” the Court wrote in its decision.
In practice, conflicts of interest since this case have been less acute and less problematic. Quite a few government officials of the past few decades have had ties to the University. Former Township mayor Junius Bleiman worked for the Wilson School during his time as mayor, and former Borough mayor Marvin Reed led Borough Hall while his wife was working for the Wilson School, Richard Woodbridge said.
Heather Howard, a professor in the Wilson School, is currently serving on the Borough Council. She regularly recuses herself from votes and discussions related to the University.
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