By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
When Princeton last year bought a flood-prone property across the street from where Mayor Liz Lempert lives on Meadowbrook Drive, she recused herself from the matter.
Yet a review of municipal records from her days as a Princeton Township Committeewoman show that she was directly involved in the procedural steps culminating with the council voting in June to buy the house for $625,000.
Records showed that she voted in September 2009 to seek federal funding for the acquisition, was kept abreast of the town’s efforts to lobby federal lawmakers and sat in at least one closed session meeting, in November 2011, where the land acquisition came up. She voted in February 2012 to approve entering an agreement with the state Office of Emergency Management — the agency acting as the pass through between Princeton and the federal government for the funds-to use a federal grant to buy the property from the owners.
So why the about-face?
In a phone interview Tuesday, she said that she had stepped aside from the issue because it involved real estate that was across the street from where she lived in a land deal involving $30,000 from the municipal open space fund. She said that in her township days, no one suggested or told her that she ought to recuse herself.
She said she had a “vague recollection” but could not be certain that she went to then-township attorney Edwin W. Schmierer about whether she had a conflict.
For his part, Mr. Schmierer, the now assistant municipal attorney for the consolidated Princeton, said this week that he had no recollection of whether she came to him for legal advice.
Yet he made clear that she did not have a conflict. He said “no direct benefit” was conferred to Mayor Lempert in that the town was not buying the property to provide her a small park, for instance.
“Legally, I don’t think there was a conflict,” he said.
He rejected a comparison between her situation and planning board and zoning board members who are prohibited from hearing a case involving a project located within 200 feet of their property.
Former township committeewoman Sue Nemeth said Tuesday that Mayor Lempert had done a “public service” by getting involved in the issue. She said the mayor had been concerned about renters of the since demolished house who would be flooded out after severe rainstorms.
“It would have been wrong for her not to be engaged,” said Ms. Nemeth, a friend and political ally of the mayor’s.
Town officials said, retrospectively, that the house should have never been built there in the first place since it was located in a flood area. They got interested in demolishing the house before Mayor Lempert was appointed to the Township Committee in 2008 to replace Phyllis Marchand.
The town was able to use money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to acquire the property. The federal program provides money for flood mitigation projects, such as the one Princeton officials were interested in.
Writing in 2009 to federal lawmakers seeking their support for the grant application, then-township Mayor Bernard P. Miller wrote that the property had flooded 10 times in 30 years. During that time, more than $195,000 in FEMA insurance payments had been paid out.
Mr. Schmierer said FEMA initiated the discussion about the Meadowbrook Drive property by first going to state officials, who then approached the town.
Mayor Lempert and other members of the governing body face issues that sometimes require them to recuse themselves. They created a policy designed to guide them in that regard.
In 2013, the council adopted a conflict of interest policy that covers themselves and municipal employees. The policy says officials must disclose any potential conflict of interest and cannot participate in any discussion or vote on the matter where they are conflicted. They also must step down from the council dais, and may even be required to leave the meeting room.
The policy, however, does not list all types of potential conflicts of interest. Each official has to police himself or herself, and seek guidance from either the town attorney acting in the role of conflict of interest attorney or the Local Finance Board of the state Department of Community Affairs.
“Ultimately, it is the responsibility of each elected official and employee to identify any situation of which he or she is aware that might be considered a conflict of interest, either with respect to such elected official or employee or any other elected official or employee,” the policy reads.
The policy is silent on what happens if citizens believe an official or employee has a conflict of interest or how a citizen’s claim would be handled.
For his part, Mr. Miller said Tuesday that he thinks Mayor Lempert recused herself from the house issue amid a heightened awareness of real or perceived conflicts of interest on the part of politicians. He said there is more scrutiny now locally, statewide and nationally than there was five or six years ago, and that such issues are “looked at more closely.”
Mayor Lempert has faced questions of conflicts before dealing with Princeton University, her husband’s employer. In 2013, the first year of the consolidated municipality, she said she was going to be part of the negotiating team to work out an agreement with the school to make voluntary financial contributions to the municipality.
Councilwoman Jo S. Butler challenged her on the issue, with Mayor Lempert getting legal advice from Mr. Schmierer that she did not have a conflict. The mayor ultimately backed down and announced that she was not going to be involved in the negotiation after all.
“I guess (the) bottom line is,” she said in 2013, “I’m not a lawyer. So I don’t want to be making the legal determination of when I should be recusing myself and when I shouldn’t be. That’s one of the reasons why we have a municipal attorney is to give us guidance.”
As for the flood house, the town last year had it demolished. The land is open space, although there had been talk of making it a park. Last month, the council accepted a donation from Mayor Lempert and a second resident of the area to provide landscaping services to maintain the property.
Mayor Lempert did not respond this week to an email inquiring why she had donated the grass cutting.
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer