Princeton Council members look forward to 2022

There were smiles all around – albeit virtually – as one veteran Princeton Council member and a newcomer to the Princeton Council were sworn into office at the Princeton Council’s reorganization meeting Jan. 5.

Princeton Councilwoman-elect Eve Niedergang and Princeton Councilman-elect Leighton Newlin were sworn into office for three-year terms by attorney Dwaine Williamson. He is a former Princeton councilman who did not seek re-election last year.

Princeton Councilwoman Leticia Fraga was re-elected to a second, one-year term as the Princeton Council president.

In her remarks, Niedergang said it was an honor to embark on her second term on the council. The COVID pandemic had an impact on Princeton, but town officials and staff continued to carry out the work that the town needs and values, she said.

Niedergang reeled off a list of highlights from 2021 – starting with the hiring of a new administrator, the preservation of the town’s largest undeveloped tract, restricting the use of gasoline-powered lawn equipment and the creation of a task force to study whether to permit cannabis retail stores to open in town.

Niedergang praised Municipal Administrator Bernard Hvozdovic for his help in open space acquisitions and for restructuring the municipal staff – appointing Municipal Engineer Deanna Stockton to become the deputy administrator for Infrastructure and Operations, and Health Officer Jeffrey Grosser to become the deputy administrator for Health and Community Services.

She also pointed to the purchase of a 153-acre parcel on Cherry Valley and Province Line roads, which is the largest undeveloped tract of land in Princeton. Niedergang and Princeton Councilwoman Mia Sacks worked together on the acquisition of the parcel.

The Princeton Council also approved an ordinance to regulate the use of gasoline-powered lawn equipment, such as leaf blowers, Niedergang said. A fund has been set up to help landscapers buy the more expensive battery-powered equipment.

Niedergang said that she and Princeton Councilwomen Leticia Fraga and Michelle Pirone Lambros created the Cannabis Task Force to study whether the town should allow the retail sale of cannabis. It is still under review.

Despite the controversies along the way in the past year, Niedergang said, the Princeton Council is united in its pursuit of the well-being of the community “as we each understand it. (That) is our single and solitary goal.”

In his first remarks as an elected official, Newlin said that like many young people, he wondered where his life’s journey would lead him. The lifelong Princeton resident said he certainly did not expect to serve on the Princeton Council, “but I am here now.”

“The most serious truth I wish to share with you is that I take this journey seriously and I will do the best I can to serve with honor (and) to serve the citizens of this historic, yet progressive town,” Newlin said.

Residents must come together to move Princeton into the future by leaving their siloed neighborhoods and worlds, and see the benefits of the four Cs: communication, collaboration, consensus and compromise, he said.

“Whether it be parking, cannabis, our relationship with Princeton University, or how we use our open space, we must come together to move forward,” he said.

The town is at a crossroads, and what it looks like and feels like will depend on residents’ shared values and what they believe is important, Newlin said. There are great challenges ahead, but also great opportunities.

“We must continue to acknowledge our unique history and its impact on the stability and sustainability of people of color,” Newlin said. Issues of equity and social justice must be addressed, he said.

“You have placed great trust in me, and I am humbled by it. What I can promise is that I will listen carefully, take time to do the research, study and understand, and work collaboratively and congenially with others,” he said.

Newlin pledged to be truthful “even if it hurts.” Residents may not always agree with his position on an issue or a decision that he makes, but it will always be based on what he believes is best for the people and that makes the most sense, he said.

“I go forth with the sentiment of Victor Hugo: ‘Being good is easy. What is difficult is to be just,’ ” Newlin said.

Then it was time for Mayor Mark Freda to offer his remarks, looking ahead to the issues that will come before the Princeton Council – from potential decisions on cannabis, permit parking, the proposed Special Improvement District, to the plans for the proposed Franklin Avenue affordable housing development.

Freda said that during the past year, the Princeton Council had heard concerns about participation and transparency as it dealt with assorted issues – cannabis and permit parking, among them.

One way to address those concerns is to rely more on the advisory boards, committees and commissions, rather than on a task force whose members include Princeton Council members, he said. The advisory boards, committees and commissions hold regularly scheduled meetings, enabling residents to plan to attend.

“(We should) ask them to help us with items, instead of setting up new task forces or other bodies to look into specific issues. This will help to address perceptions (about) decisions being made prior to a discussion at public meetings of the full governing body due to too many elected officials sitting on the task force,” he said.

Holding work sessions at the Princeton Council meetings to discuss topics such as the proposed Special Improvement District, cannabis and the Franklin Avenue affordable housing development – which calls for building an undetermined number of apartments on the vacant Franklin Avenue parking lot – would help the council to achieve consensus.

Sharing information openly and early in the process with the community reflects accountability and transparency, he said. It encourages feedback and input. The flip side is that residents must accept the “honest sharing” of ideas before they are fully developed, and to comment in a respectful manner, he said.

“This is a two-way street. We all need to encourage each other to do this sharing of information and thoughts, while understanding that we all really want to do what is best,” he said.

Freda said he would reach out to the six Princeton Council members so they all work together. They may not agree with each other on every issue, and the discussions may become awkward, but they should all feel free to express themselves to each other and to the public during the council meetings, he said.

“If we all listen to understand and not listen to argue, and if all of us consider that the final decision does not need to be our own ideas but instead combining the good points of several different ideas, we will achieve much more,” Freda said.