PRINCETON: Mayoral forum focuses on police tactics, affordability and taxes


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By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Police tactics came to the fore of Tuesday’s mayoral debate between Democrat incumbent Liz Lempert and Republican challenger Peter Marks, with both candidates unable or unwilling to say whether or not police engage in profiling.
The topic came up at the end of a League of Women Voters candidates’ night, a roughly 70-minute forum spent mostly on taxes and affordability. The candidates responded to an audience submitted question of whether there is an issue with police profiling in town, this at a time when council members have raised concerns about police doing random license plate checks while on the road.
Mayor Lempert, who has talked highly of the department, offered that the police release data in their monthly and annual reports on the racial breakdown of traffic stops. She believed the information was important to disclose.
“One of the things that makes that data difficult to interpret is we’re not exactly sure what the population is of the drivers that are in Princeton. We have two state highways coming through town,” she said. “If you’re on Nassau Street anytime, you realize there’s a lot of people; probably the majority of people on our roads are not Princeton residents. We know that because of the volume of the traffic.”
Yet she never answered directly whether there is an issue with profiling, while Mr. Marks answered, “I don’t know.”
“I think profiling, as a concept, has some merit,” he said. “When it’s done capriciously, particular groups are targeted, it’s pernicious. I don’t know whether we’ve gotten to the point where it’s pernicious in Princeton or not. I would hope not.”
He said that living in a small town, people know who their neighbors are and those who aren’t. “But I’m not persuaded that it’s so dreadful for the police to keep their eye on people,” he said.
Earlier, Mayor Lempert said she was “very proud” of a police department that emphasizes community policing to foster positive interactions with the public.
Mr. Marks was complimentary of the department as well.
“I think we have an outstanding police force,” Mr. Marks said. “They’re responsive when we need them, they’re reasonable, they’re professional, they’re kind.”
Through the night, the two candidates responded to questions, posed by a moderator, about the challenges facing the community. Mr. Marks touched on the costs of providing government services to all the residents moving into new residential developments.
“If we’re concerned about affordability, we don’t have to look much further than the population growth that’s been prompted by the AvalonBay construction, the Merwick-Stanworth construction,” he said.
“I don’t know if want to be a community that sends the signal out that we don’t welcome families and we don’t welcome children,” Mayor Lempert said at one point.
“What I’m suggesting is,” Mr. Marks replied, “if we increase the number of families significantly and then we increase the number of children, we shouldn’t be surprised when our costs and our taxes go up.”
Mayor Lempert touched on steps officials take to manage the town’s finances, to look long term at ramifications of spending decisions. This year, municipal taxes went up in the $61.9 million municipal budget.
“We look at the budget, we sharpen our pencils every single year,” she said. “If you look at all of our neighboring communities, Princeton has the lowest tax increases, over the past five years, of any of our neighbors.”
Mayor Lempert, first elected in 2012, is seeking her second four-year-term. She said municipal government has an “important role to play in shaping our community and in planning for the kind of future we want to build together.”
“I also believe government has a responsibility to lift all boats and to think not just for ourselves, but for future generations,” she continued. “That means doing our fair share when it comes to affordable housing, recognizing the historic importance of our older neighborhoods and creating a welcoming community for all.”
She talked of the need to have housing available in town for people of all incomes and be an inclusive community, while Mr. Marks offered that affordable housing “sounds great.”
“But if it’s targeted at nonresidents at the expense of residents, that strikes me as unjust,” he said.
Mayor Lempert, in reply, said the town has to comply with state laws to make housing available to its entire region. She talked of exploring increasing the density of affordable housing that is run by the Princeton Housing Authority at Maple Terrace and Franklin Avenue, home now to a combined 20 apartments.
“I think you can increase the density slightly without it even coming close to the density of AvalonBay,” she said in reference to the larger 280-unit-project.
At a time when residents are concerned about developers buying homes, tearing them down and building bigger ones in their place, Mr. Marks said he would not support a ban on “tear downs,” as they are called. Yet he said the town could impose restrictions to prevent buildings “that are excessively inconsistent with the existing fabric of the neighborhood.”
Mayor Lempert said that, although the town is limited in what it can do to prevent tear downs, the municipality is taking a fresh look at its zoning, “to see if what is on the books matches what each neighborhood’s vision is for what they want their neighborhood to look like.”
Her challenger raised question why it has taken so long for the council to conform zoning codes from the former borough and township. Mr. Marks offered a formula to describe the challenges facing neighborhoods: zoning decisions by the town to allow greater density lead to higher land values, lead to higher property assessments and, eventually, lead to higher taxes.
Mr. Marks said the biggest challenge of being mayor would be to address and reduce the impact of state mandates on government. He said he would like to see officials work with other towns to “reduce the burden of many of the mandates and dictates that I consider to be crippling.”
Mayor Lempert raised working with the school district and the public library on looking to share services and save money.
The mayoral debate came close to filling all the seats in the main meeting room in the Witherspoon Hall municipal building. The leaders of both political parties in Princeton attended, and afterward raved about how their respective candidates had performed.
“I thought she was articulate, I thought she was to the point and I thought she was knowledgeable about the issues,” said Democratic chairwoman Scotia MacRae. “I don’t think he has as deep an understanding of the issues as she does.”
“He was very specific in speaking to what ails Princeton,” GOP chairman Dudley Sipprelle countered in saying high taxes are making the town unaffordable and leading to an exodus of residents.
“He came across well. He was animated. He spoke to all the issues,” Mr. Sipprelle said.

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