Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert will recuse herself from the town’s upcoming discussions with the University regarding the amount it will contribute to the town’s budget in the coming year.
Lempert, whose husband is a University professor, explained at a town council meeting Tuesday evening that the question of her potential conflict of interest had become too great of a distraction.
“I felt that my participation and excitement to participate had become so much of the focus,” Lempert said in an interview. “I felt like, if there was all this distraction around me, it was not helping.”
The University, which is not required to pay property taxes on most of its land, makes a voluntary payment-in-lieu-of-taxes contribution to the town every year. Last year its contribution was $2.475 million.
Councilwoman Jo Butler, who has in the past called for Lempert to recuse herself, said she was surprised by Lempert’s change of mind.
“It was clear that it was a very difficult decision for Mayor Lempert,” Butler said. “She’d been clear through the process that she thought that she was not conflicted and that she should be at the table.”
Butler added that she thought the decision would eliminate the possibility that the town would be threatened with litigation over her participation.
Edwin Schmierer,the town attorney, had given an opinion in August saying the mayor’s marriage did not constitute a conflict of interest under the state local government ethics law.
Councilwoman Heather Howard, who teaches at the University’s Wilson School, confirmed she will also recuse herself from the discussions, as she has in previous years, in keeping with recommendations by Schmierer.
Town and University officials will begin negotiations in mid-November to determine the amount to be contributed to the 2014 budget. Town Council President Bernard Miller will lead the community representation, along with Councilman Patrick Simon and Town Administrator Robert Bruschi, according to Butler.
University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and Provost David Lee ’99will be involved in the University’s internal preparations for the talks, while the school’s negotiating team will be led by University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 and Community and Regional Affairs Director Kristin Appelget, Durkee confirmed.
Both parties have expressed interest in reaching an agreement that would set the amount of the PILOT for the next several years, as they have done in the past. Town officials have indicated interest in setting an agreement covering three to five years.
“I think it’s in the interest of both the University and the municipality to have a multi-year agreement. I’m sure we’ll have a conversation about how many years make sense,” Durkee said. He added that he hopes to conclude PILOT discussions before the end of the year.
Lempert, who became the first mayor of the consolidated Princeton with the merging of the Borough and Township in January 2013, said she looked forward to working with Eisgruber’s administration in future years.
“This is only one piece of our relationship with the University, and I’m certainly not stepping away from other aspects of our relationship with the University,” Lempert said, explaining that she will treat every question related to the University on a case-by-case basis.
Although PILOT contributions are not unusual for institutions like the University, Princeton’s payment has become the focus of litigation recently, as it became involved in the town discussions over granting the University the legal permissions needed to construct the Arts and Transit Neighborhood currently undergoing development. One of several lawsuits currently challenging the University’s decision to move the Dinky station to make way for the development alleges that the University offered the PILOT as monetary payment in exchange for the project’s zoning approval.