In a Jan. 8 meeting, the Princeton Town Council announced plans to consolidate the Civil Rights Commission, Human Services Commission, and Affordable Housing Board into a single 11-member committee. Proponents, including all members of the town council, argue that the move will streamline Princeton’s government, although over 30 Princeton residents expressed opposition and frustration with this decision at a Council meeting on Jan. 22. At that meeting, council members amended the ordinance to increase the number of members of the new committee from seven to nine with two alternates. They also voted to change the name of the committee and the process by which committee chairs are chosen.
Despite personal acknowledgement and apology from council members, including a tearful statement from Councilmember Mia Sacks, community members and commission members expressed feelings of blind-sidedness and betrayal.
Spruill said, “If I don’t have a voice as chair [of the Civil Rights Commission], then our underserved community won’t have a voice either.”
In interview with The Daily Princetonian, Councilmembers Eve Niedergang, Leticia Fraga, and Leighton Newlin shed more light on the controversial decision. All supported the decision to consolidate the committees.
“We are not fighting for the right to vote, we are fighting to live … We cannot continue with the status quo when the organizational structure is not meeting the needs of the committee,” Newlin said.
Among those who commented were Ana Pazmino, executive director of Unidad Latina en Acción NJ, a grassroots organization with which many Princeton students collaborate. She stated that she represents many Princeton residents who don’t have access to these meetings and “have faced many issues with human services and affordable housing.”
Niedergang, a member of the Governance Committee, expressed that in making this choice, the council sought a more “nimble body that would work hand-in-hand with staff, because these issues are all connected.”
Councilmember Fraga served on the Civil Rights and Human Services commissions before serving on the town council. She explained that starting in 1968, Civil Rights was a standalone commission before merging with the Human Services Commission in 1996. The Civil Rights Commission returned to being a standalone commission in 2017.
Fraga added that many of the citizens who wrote in opposition to the change “didn’t understand the role of the commission.” She explained that the current setup posed certain limitations, and expressing it was actually doing residents a disservice.
“Nothing is being taken away now; it makes sense to consolidate, because [after] serving on both, I saw many instances in which it would be best for [the] committees to collaborate,” Fraga added.
Fraga provided an example of a family who came to the Human Services Commission to voice concerns about discrimination when applying for affordable housing. Due to the sequestering of information between each commission, the unit that the family applied for was no longer available by the time the Affordable Housing Commission addressed the concern.
Newlin echoed this point. “No one is turning their backs on civil rights,” he said. “We see [that the lack of] affordable housing is a problem. If you have three separate entities looking at issues separately and not in a meaningful way, council members have to take responsibility and own that. We need boldness. We didn’t sign up to take up things as they are.”
While the Council supports the consolidation, some community leaders have said that the merger will stifle the work of these commissions. Former Pace Center community partner and former chair of the Civil Rights Commission Fern Spruill wrote in a Town Topics op-ed that “this proposal will not make the commissions more effective. It will do exactly the opposite.”
The discussions around the decision to consolidate were not made public or available to members of the commissions being disbanded until a Jan. 5 email. Fraga told the ‘Prince’ that while there were some conversations around frustration and inability to make progress on commission initiatives, no discussions were had about the intention to consolidate. The lack of transparency frustrated some residents, such as community member Carole Golden, who said at the Jan. 22 meeting that “It almost belies that you care what we think.”
Niedergang explained that the original plan was for commission members to receive an email and then a personal call from governing body members before this news went public, but that this plan failed for a “variety of reasons.”
“We messed up on that,” Niedergang said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’
However, according to Newlin, “People shouldn’t focus on feelings being hurt,” but on the final product the new, consolidated commission can accomplish.
In order to emphasize the importance of continued public engagement, the ordinance was amended on Jan. 22 to add that subcommittees could work with members of the public. Newlin expressed that the Town Council and committee members are in need of “people who understand how all things mix and mingle together — grant writing, finance, outreach — and can take it to [the] next level in provisions of service.”
Niedergang expressed that Princeton students can have a significant role with this new committee.
The majority of people using human services and civil rights services are renters. After requesting subsidies from the University for affordable housing, the municipality and University agreed that Princeton will provide money for homeowners using the Affordable New Jersey Communities for Homeowners and Renters (ANCHOR) program, a New Jersey property tax relief for certain low-income renters and homeowners. One of the Town Council’s goals is that every single eligible person in the town of Princeton will apply. According to Niedergang, the only way to guarantee that every eligible person is aware of the program is to physically reach and speak to community members.
She said that she would “love to get students out to more densely populated neighborhoods, knock on doors and ask people if they have applied for ANCHOR and mention that this year they can be awarded double.”
Niedergang concluded the interview noting that the consolidation was a difficult decision, but that all seven members of the governing body were on board.
Councilmember Newlin reflected on the public discontent surrounding the decision by reflecting on his role as a public official.
“Sometimes leadership is taking uncomfortable positions.”
Abby Leibowitz is a senior News writer for the ‘Prince.’
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