The Princetons Make History
Township + Borough =
By Robert W. Bruschi
Administrator, Princeton Borough
Welcome to the new math! Princeton Township plus Princeton Borough now equals One Princeton. History is being made as two communities, living separate lives for over
200 years, are about to marry. The courtship has been long, productive and cooperative. To the world, they have always been one, but the reality has been much different. The citizens have spoken and the marriage will commence on January 1, 2013. There is much to plan for the big event.
The two entities have courted in the past. In fact, the proposal for marriage had been defeated by the voters on several occasions. The most recent attempt, with stars aligned, had the unanimous support of both governing bodies for a consolidation study. The process then went to the State of New Jersey and Department of Community Affairs for review and approval.
There were two major differences with this latest effort; the towns were taking advantage of the Local Options Law (not in effect for the previous attempts) and, with the aid of this legislation, the process was being spearheaded by the two governing bodies (as opposed to the more traditional, grass roots effort). With support of the study also came funding by each of the governing bodies. Funding was critical. We were able to hire an outside consulting firm to provide a professional, unbiased view of the information gathering. This translated into a transparent process that focused on civic involvement.
Resolutions were adopted and the study plan was reviewed. The approvals to move forward were in place and the governing bodies appointed a Consolidation Study Commission. The towns publicly advertised for interested citizens. Those that were ultimately chosen provided written information about their credentials and their views on consolidation. In addition, the "finalists" were interviewed in a public meeting. The governing bodies deliberated and ultimately chose a commission they had confidence in.
The selection process allowed for a commission made up almost entirely of newbies to local government. Each of the members brought different and unique abilities to the table, which made for a strong commission.
The commission’s first major undertakings included putting together a budget followed by an immediate search for a consultant to help lead the process. Again, the entire selection process was held in public. This open process speaks volumes about how the commission would eventually administer the overall consolidation study. The firm chosen, Center for Government Research (CGR), Rochester, New York, had the most direct experience with the study of local government consolidations, as well as a proven track record of success in New York state. An additional factor that separated CGR from the competition was their shared concern about making sure the process was open and that the information was readily available to all. CGR proposed the establishment of a website specific to the Princeton project, posting all minutes from meetings, reports, and a variety of other information on the site. This seemingly small proposition proved to be of tremendous benefit throughout the consolidation study process as well as during the months preceding the vote.
The site was heavily advertised and generated an enormous number of “hits.”
The public, we realized, has an insatiable appetite for information. The Commission, in recognization of this, did all they could to keep the process open and in front of the public. During Commission meetings, a portion of the time was set aside for public comment, questions etc. As part of every meeting there were reports from subcommittees, who met monthly, keeping the process moving forward with directed focus.
Formal presentations were made by the Commission during key points throughout the duration of the project. The first such presentation was the delivery to the public of baseline information about each of the communities. This critical meeting established the baseline data which would be used for future comparisons and projections going forward. Getting the Commission and the public up to speed on this information was critical.
Another significant method used to reach out to citizens was through the Public Engagement Subcommittee, whose assignment was to develop and implement the commissions public education, outreach and engagement strategy and to ensure the effectiveness of the mechanisms for community input. This committee was on the front line, answering questions, setting up forums, and in every means possible assuring that information was getting out into the community. No stone went unturned and no question went unanswered.
It is of utmost importance to understand that when the final report was issued to the governing bodies and the community, there were no new facts to present. The community had been continuously informed, leading to the next step, approval to put the question of consolidation to voters by including it on the ballot. There were members on the commission team and governing bodies who did not believe that consolidation was the right approach. All, however, unanimously agreed that the matter should go before the voters.
Once the question was placed on the ballot, groups quickly formed on both sides of the consolidation question. The anti-consolidation group expressed fears that a minimum amount of savings would have the unwanted effect of robbing the borough of its small town feel and identity.
The borough would become engulfed and out-voted by the larger township. These same concerns had proven to be roadblocks to consolidation in the past.
Princeton’s first-ever, pro-consolidation group formed. This group,
providing organized advocacy for consolidation, was a key factor in disseminating balanced information to the community. The pro-consolidation viewpoint had never enjoyed this kind of support before.
Both groups worked exceptionally hard to present their differing interpretations of the facts to the electorate. They played fair by presenting correct, factual information to support their opposing positions. The effort led to consolidation passing by nearly 5-1 in the township and 2-1 in the borough.
The easy part is over. Our communities and the staffs of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough have only 12 months to complete the transition. We must move from roadmap to road, by following the recommendations of the Study Commission and the plan overwhelmingly approved
by the voters. Implementing the details as seamlessly as possible will be challenging but rewwarding. Princeton is in the middle of another revolution and it will clearly be fast paced and historic.
Originally published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 2, February 2012