As towns formally merge, a pause for celebration
Lance Liverman, a former Princeton Township committeeman, has referred to consolidation as a rancorous family reunion — one with an uncle who is “rude and nasty,” and an aunt who is “too judgmental.”
“Whatever the makeup of the reunion members, whatever the flaws of the family members, there is one connecting theme,” he said. “You see that theme is that we are one family.”
On Tuesday, that family became one as the phrases Princeton Borough and Princeton Township receded into the past. Residents from the Borough and Township rung in the new year and the new consolidated municipality with a vibrant celebration filled with laughter, speeches, advice, promises, swearing-in ceremonies and refreshments. It was the first major municipal consolidation in New Jersey in over half a century.
Local supermarket McCaffrey’s donated “consoli-cakes” and refreshments for the celebration, which featured former Borough and Township mayors, New Jersey state officials, University representatives and citizen volunteers. Liz Lempert, the new mayor of consolidated Princeton, recognized the group effort over the span of six decades that brought about consolidation.
“Today we honor all those who helped bring us to this point,” Lempert said. “This has been an instance of real democracy in action.”
Former Borough Administrator Bob Bruschi, who will continue as the administrator of the consolidated Princeton, recognized the devotion of the municipal staff as well as the potential that lies in the future.
“There were 250 other Bob Bruschi followers, staff that did the yeoman share of this work. But it is hard to believe that after two plus or minus years, we finally got to this day. It’s been on my calendar since that process started,” Bruschi said. “I’ve devoted my career to public service, and I can’t think of any better way of spending the last couple years — or whatever it is — in getting this process off to a great start.”
For others, the journey to consolidation has been even longer. Anton Lahnston, the chairman of the consolidation study commission that first examined the merger, called it “a historic day.”
Former Township Mayor Chad Goerner said he has considered consolidation ever since he ran for mayor six years ago.
“It is fantastic to see a celebration take place over something that many of us thought would be very, very difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. But we did it,” he said.
Perhaps the person who has had the longest journey with consolidation at the celebration was Bernie Miller, who served on the Township Committee and will now serve as the president of the new Princeton Council. Miller first joined the consolidation cause when he was recruited to work on the consolidation study commission that considered a joint municipality in 1978.
“It is very gratifying to me to be able to say that 59 years after consolidation was first put to a vote in 1953, we’re now legally one Princeton,” Miller said.
Princeton has legally become one digitally as well. The new Princeton’s government website is up and running, and the Borough website’s homepage has a message linking to the new website, while the Township website is already in the process of being archived. Other minor, but still symbolic, changes include the use of new email addresses for all elected officials and staff. The Princeton Police Department changed its Twitter handle from @PrincetonTwpPD to @PrincetonPolice to reflect its broader coverage area.
Mark Freda, the chair of the Transition Task Force, which guided the merger over the past year, dispensed advice to the new governing body. Freda, who called this a “golden opportunity, a fresh start, a clean slate” also cautioned the officials not to hang on to mistakes of the past but rather to “be bold, be progressive, be fair and be open-minded.”
Princeton’s consolidation could inspire change beyond local boundaries. Lempert recalled an interaction she had with Eugene McCarthy, the liaison from New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs to Princeton who has been providing guidance throughout the consolidation process.
“At the meeting Eugene leaned into his mike and said, ‘You people have restored my faith in government,’ ” Lempert recalled. “Princeton has become a model of good governance for the state of New Jersey and the nation — and all eyes are on us.”
But it is this uniqueness that Lempert said will help Princeton face whatever challenges the new single government will face in its opening years.
“Princeton has often served as a setting for uncommon results," she said, noting George Washington’s victory in Princeton during the Revolutionary War and the meeting of the Continental Congress in Nassau Hall. “The big question is: What will be the story of Princeton’s consolidation? Will we be a cautionary tale or a model for the state and nation?”
Lempert answered her own question.
“There can only be one answer to that question. We will succeed,” she said.