As the new year begins, it is a time for change and fresh ideas. In government, it is a time to swear in newly elected officials, make committee or appointment changes and explore new policies. From the state to the county to municipal roles, our government hit 2024 running.
STATE OF THE STATE
New voting rights were approved in the Garden State as we rung in the new year. NJ District 16 Senator Andrew Zwicker was the lead author of a bill that Governor Phil Murphy has signed into law, allowing 17-year olds to vote in primary elections (if they are going to be 18 by Election Day).
“One person, one vote is at the heart of our democracy, and I am happy to see it signed into law. This voter empowerment law gives our young people the opportunity to make their voices heard by granting them the right to vote in a primary election,” said Senator Zwicker. “At a time when our politics is polarized and when too many people stay home on Election Day, it is time to engage and empower a new generation of voters so that they may have a say in the future of our great state.”
Murphy has even more ideas on engaging the younger population. At his State of the State address on January 9th, he expressed a desire to see 16 and 17-year olds vote in local school board elections. Statewide legislation has yet to pass, but On January 10th, Newark became the first municipality in the state to approve this change.
NJ also joins a majority of the country by allowing certain female contraception without a prescription. Ewing’s State Senator Shirley Turner helped push this through. It was signed into law a year ago, but regulatory delays have kept it from starting. It is expected that very soon all women will have the opportunity to get birth control pills over-the-counter at participating pharmacies.
You may also recall the terrible tragedy on New Year’s Day, when 25-year old Murphy aide Louisa Carman was killed in a car accident on Route 1 in Plainsboro. Murphy has since asked the governing bodies to work on new legislation ensuring medical bills are clear and transparent, and to name it the Louisa Carman Medical Debt Relief Act.
On January 10th, Mercer County swore in its new County Executive, as Dan Benson replaced Brian Hughes after 20 years in the seat.
Benson has laid out his primary goals for the county, which include fiscal accountability and transparency, building the new airport terminal at Trenton-Mercer airport, quality and affordable care for seniors, accessible housing, and stronger collaborations and partnerships with municipal leaders and state government. These are not necessarily new goals for the office, but Benson says things are going to be different.
“Over the last few years, many mayors, officials, and observers became concerned with the operation of county government. I ran because there was a strong need to right the financial ship of the county and rebuild confidence and cooperation with our municipalities. With every office I have held, I governed with a broad coalition of partners. As County Executive, I am going to approach problems from an innovative lens,” Bensons explains. “We are reorganizing the structure of county government to make it more responsive and transparent. We will be collaborative with our partners including local, state and federal elected officials, faith leaders, union members and the variety of other community members that our movement was built on. That is why my pledge during the campaign and now as County Executive is to provide Leadership that works for everyone.”
Benson says he truly wants to work with and hear from everyone. If you have a concern or idea, you can contact him here.
PLANS FOR THE MUNICIPALITY
In Princeton, there was no change to the makeup of Council, as incumbents David Cohen and Leticia Fraga were sworn in for another 3-year term and Mia Sacks was renewed as Council President. But officials did decide to shake things up a little to start off 2024.
A new ordinance was introduced at the January 8th meeting proposing the Affordable Housing Board, Human Services Commission and Civil Rights Commission should morph into one entity known as the Community Services Advisory Committee. Council members say the intent and purpose of each will not disappear, and the change is needed for better efficiency. As it stands, the three committees consist of a total of 29 members, and the new singular committee is proposed to have seven regular and two alternate members.
“Change is never easy, but it is essential for progress. The consolidation of the civil rights, human services, and affordable housing committees is a strategic move towards a more integrated and targeted approach,” shares Councilman Leighton Newlin. “As we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am reminded that to be part of the necessary change that improves lives, we must move beyond comfort and embrace the discomfort that leads to progress.”
As it considers this change, Council has also proposed the elimination of the Sewer Committee by folding it into the Department of Infrastructure and Operations. It was created to focus on the old and troublesome sewer system, much of which has been addressed and is being tended to through the current sewer projects. Council feels with the hiring of a Municipal sewer engineer and other specialists, a separate committee is no longer needed and the sewer needs will continue to be addressed, updated and maintained as part of ongoing infrastructure.
The public has an opportunity to share their views or concerns about the above changes through public comment at the upcoming January 22nd Council meeting.
This month we also learned that 2-term Councilwoman Eve Niedergang will not be seeking reelection. Board of Education member Brian McDonald, who will be wrapping up his second term in that office later this year, has thrown his hat into the Council race. Ensuring affordable housing, protecting our environment and strengthening relationships with community non-profits are the key platforms as he kicks off his campaign.
“In the coming months, I look forward to opportunities to listen to and learn from residents, non-profit leaders, business owners, and all members of our community, with a focus on how, working together, we can ensure that Princeton continues to be a vibrant and caring town,” McDonald offers.
It was a tumultuous 2023 at Princeton Public Schools (PPS), with the removal of Princeton High School Principal Frank Chmiel and the resignation of Superintendent Carol Kelley. But as they kicked off 2024, Board President Dafna Kendal says the Board of Education (BOE)is looking ahead.
“We are looking forward to a great year in 2024. Cecilia Birge is settling in at the high school and we’re very excited that Kathie Foster agreed to return to the district to serve as Acting Superintendent. This year will be focused on the students, that’s why we are all here,” notes Kendal.
The BOE said goodbye to two long-term members and welcomed in two newly elected ones. Adam Bierman and Eleonor Hubbard were sworn in to replace Jean Durbin, who did not seek reelection, and Michele Tuck-Ponder, who lost her bid in November. Speaking as private citizens, and not as members of the Board, they both shared some thoughts with Princeton Perspectives as they enter this new role. Both have admitted to a need to orient themselves and forge relationships to have the most benefit.
As he does that, Bierman says there are two things he hopes to get on top of. He has some real concerns about HiTops teaching in the middle school Pathways to Racial Literacy course and wants to ensure everything is done in a way that is age-appropriate and not divisive. He also knows that PPS is hoping to get another referendum project approved and hopes he can offer some new ways to ensure it is done well, timely and in a budget-friendly way.
“While I claim to have only some answers, I am committed to exploring innovative approaches,” Bierman contends. “For instance, I believe in real-time monitoring and strategic management in construction challenges, especially considering the impact of factors such as state regulations and supply chain dynamics, which is important given the possible challenges of even more referendums being put to vote by the Princeton taxpayer.”
For Hubbard, who had in the past been vocal about concerns with Princeton’s math program, there is hope forging new, constructive relationships will lead to progress for the students.
“One area to which I would like to bring a renewed focus is supporting deliberate decision-making and institutional memory where the curriculum is concerned. What this means, in practice, is that I would like to support the district’s efforts to articulate the nature and the rationale of curricular changes, as well as how it monitors and evaluates the impact of those changes,” Hubbard details. “I am a big believer in the production of written memos about important decisions, because written explanations clarify thought, support clear communication, provide for accountability, and build strong institutional memory so that even if specific individuals cycle in and out, administrators and Board members can access past experience.”
The board has just wrapped up two community information sessions to provide details and answer questions about a new referendum it is hoping to get approved later this year. As opposed to the recent referendum which focused on security and infrastructure updates, this intends to increase capacity by adding physical space to the buildings at Community Park Elementary, Littlebrook Elementary and Princeton Middle School. Taking feedback from these meetings, the architects and Board are continuing to refine the referendum before it is put before voters in November. If approved, they are hoping to begin construction in 2025. The Proposed Facilities Expansion Plan details are available on their website.
At its first meeting of the new year, the Board voted to approve revisions to the district calendar, determining a final day of school for students on June 14th and building in three flexible snow days. With Tuesday’s first official snow cancellation, the new calendar comes into effect. What was previously a day off for students will now be a half day on Friday February 16th.
INVOLVING THE PUBLIC
All entities of state, county and local government have opportunities to listen to and hear from their constituents. As they start the new year, many have vocalized they do want to hear from you. You can reach out to your officials via email, and show up to their public meetings to share your thoughts:
- NJ Legislature, Making Your Voice Heard
Contact your legislator
- Email the County Executive
Mercer County Commissioner Meetings
- Contact Council and Mayor
Princeton Council MeetingsCouncilman Leighton Newlin also holds “Leighton Listens” at locations around town every Wednesday from 11am-12:30pm
- Email Princeton BOE Members
Princeton Public Schools Board of Education Meetings
Lisa Jacknow spent years working in national and local news in and around New York City before moving to Princeton. Working as both a TV producer and news reporter, Lisa came to this area to focus on the local news of Mercer County at WZBN-TV. In recent years, she got immersed in the Princeton community by serving leadership roles at local schools in addition to volunteering for other local non-profits. In her free time, Lisa loves to spend time with her family, play tennis, sing and play the piano. A graduate of the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Lisa was raised just north of Boston, Massachusetts but has lived in the tri-state area since college. She is excited to be Editor and head writer for Princeton Perspectives!