Town council discusses uniform policy for recusal, Route 1 plans
Members of Princeton Council discussed the possibility of establishing a uniform policy regulating when council members recuse themselves due to personal affiliations with local institutions whose concerns come before the Council on Monday night. As several council members have affiliations with the University, such a policy could change the way these council members determine whether or not to vote on University issues.
The Council explored the challenges of maintaining a neutral stance on issues that involve the University and other local institutions when some council members or their families have affiliations with the institutions directly affected by the Council’s decisions.
Mayor Liz Lempert, whose husband is a tenured professor, is one council member with a University affiliation. When council members are considering an issue concerning organizations that they personally may or not have a vested interest in supporting or disapproving, the Council has repeatedly discussed how to determine when a conflict of interest exists.
Lawyer Bradford Middlekauff, offering his expertise pro bono to the Council, explained that there will inevitably be conflicts of interest and the goal should not be to eliminate those conflicts. Rather, the Council’s role is to identity whether a conflict of interest exists and to execute a procedure to ensure proper disclosure of the conflict and to arrange for disinterested elected officials or employees to make decisions in situations where conflicts exist, he said.
Conflicts of interest have been an issue of disagreement in the town council in recent months. At a Janunary Council meeting, several council members criticized Lempert’s decision not to recuse herself from the Council’s discussion of the University’s annual payment in lieu of taxes, known as PILOT. Some other members of the Council saw this action as a potential ethics violation because Lempert’s husband is a professor at the University.
At Monday’s meeting, Middlekauff explained that conflicts of interest need to be evaluated appropriately and suggested that the Council should “take on the issue head-on rather than ignoring it or shoving it.”
“This policy doesn’t provide a checklist or a yes-no answer,” Middlekauf said. He explained that cases need to be evaluated individually to determine the particulars of each situation and evaluate gray areas. He added that there should be a road map for how to assess such situations on a case-by-case basis.
Middlekauff suggests a policy that doesn’t set forth briteline rules — such as uniform hard rules on what kind of relationship is too close for a council member to rule on an issue — on most cases.
Councilwoman Jo Butler expressed disapproval for evaluating issues where conflicts of interest exist on a case-by-case basis. She explained that determining whether a conflict of interest exists is a complex decision that involves many factors.
“It’s not like pornography when you know it when you see it,” Butler said. She explained that, while people can be reasonable on both sides of any argument, if a council member or any other official is in a situation where a conflict exists with an institution involved in the case — no matter where the briteline is in terms of the closeness of the affiliation or the circumstances of the relationship — he or she ought to be recused from partaking in the Council’s decision.
“If you simply recuse on those issues, you eliminate any sort of controversy. Otherwise, you run the risk of looking for a very fine point. If you recuse on all points [where there exists a conflict], there will be no controversy,” Butler said.
Councilman Lance Liverman explained that he believes that each member should individually take responsibility for recusing him or herself when necessary. He said that a council member should recuse him or herself in instances where the Council’s decision could potentially lead to a benefit for the council member or a family member of the council member’s.
The Council has not reached a final decision on how to resolve such conflicts of interest and will further discuss the issue at future Council meetings over the coming weeks.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation has proposed a plan, called the “Princeton Concept,” to alter Route 1 by closing two old jughandles and opening two new jughandles while widening the road. This concept plan is still under discussion, and NJDOT is currently collecting feedback from the Princeton community.
Lempert explained that if a fourth lane is added to Route 1, making a turn from Washington onto Route 1 will become more challenging and would not allow drivers room to turn, which she describes as the “crux of the engineering challenge.”
Several Princeton residents expressed their concern that traffic would increase if the proposed changes were implemented.
“The University is looking at all of this, and we are awaiting a report from our engineers. We don’t have any hard data at this point,” Kristin Appelget, the University’s director of regional and community affairs, said. Appelget expects to receive data from engineers at the University and others who are doing research to provide concrete data for discussion on the proposed concept plan.
Several residents expressed disapproval for the plan because of its “temporary” nature, as it is only to last until 2035.
“Simpler is better,” Councilman Patrick Simon said, explaining that in order to improve the flow through and across Route 1, he thought it is best to consider smaller steps such as widening Route 1 and preserving all left turns.
Eric Payne, West Windsor resident and member of Smart Traffic Solutions, a citizens group, explained that the proposed plan would maintain a high amount of traffic on Washington Road. Payne said he disapproved of the plan, explaining that the existing traffic issues are not new but that the proposal doesn’t offer an effective solution.
“This proposal, just please don’t go with it,” he said.
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