The Princeton Council voted unanimously on Monday night to remove new parking enforcement technology from the $7.2 million bond ordinance for capital improvements for the municipality after many residents pushed back against the plan over the past few weeks. The decision is a reversal of a council vote two weeks ago to introduce the bond ordinance with financing for the license plate reader technology included.
Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros said the intention of including the funding in the capital budget was to be transparent as the council plans its capital spending. “It’s not a decision to move forward with the technology,” she said, adding that the funding was being allocated in case the council decides to move forward with the technology. Pirone Lambros then made a motion to vote down the ordinance.
Councilwoman Eve Niedergang said officials are committed to not moving forward without a public process for debating the merits of the parking permit program and the technology that will be used as part of that program.
“As I saw this two weeks ago, it was not actually taking action but rather opening the door to action, and a number of people have called me on that interpretation,” Niedergang said. “I certainly understand that the appearance of moving forward was there, even though in my heart of hearts, I understood that that’s not what we’re doing, and another resolution and a vote by the council would be required to spend the money…we have all committed to not moving forward without a public process, but I think sometimes appearances are very important. And, you know, I regret ignoring that fact.”
Councilman David Cohen said that when the council met a couple of weeks ago, it was unclear what the financial implications might be if the funding for the license plate reader technology was separated out from the bond ordinance. He said he was concerned about additional costs, but has been told by the town’s chief financial officer that there is no added expense if a second bond ordinance is approved later this year.
Cohen said the parking permit tasks force met recently and began brainstorming about how to implement the parking permit program without the license plate reader technology. He said it is doable, but the main advantage of the license reader technology is that it makes online permitting possible, and that permits can immediately be associated with a license plate. He there is no other way for people to register for permits instantaneously without the license plate reader technology, and people would instead need to wait five to seven days for a permit.
At the last council meeting two weeks ago, Cohen falsely claimed that the council had to include the funding in the bond ordinance, or officials wouldn’t be able to bond for the project for the rest of the year. “If we don’t pass it then we are saying by default we are not going ahead with that part of the permit parking program this year,” Cohen said at the time.
Councilwoman Mia Sacks questioned whether that was true, or whether the town could still borrow money to fund the purchase of the technology at a later date. Sandy Webb, the chief financial officer for the town, said at that meeting that the town could borrow the money at a later date this year if needed. The bonding for the license plate reader equipment could be brought back as a separate ordinance, she said.
Cohen stressed at that meeting that the council was only approving the financing for the project, and that budgeting for the funding in the capital improvement ordinance didn’t mean the council would necessarily approve the technology at a later date and spend the money. Niedergang agreed at the time and said it seemed like a waste of time and energy to pass two separate bond ordinances. “I trust us,” she said. “No one is going to try to sneak anything through. It just seems easier to vote on the whole thing. If we don’t spend the money, we don’t spend the money.”
The council voted 5-1 at that meeting to introduce the ordinance, with Sacks dissenting. The public was not allowed to comment during the ordinance introduction process two weeks ago.
At the start of the council meeting Monday, Council President Leticia Fraga said the permit parking plan is “still evolving” and that there is a lot of information being spread about the program that is inaccurate and misleading. She said the task force is trying to create an equitable parking system in town and that people should read more about it to understand the program.
During the public comment period for items not on the agenda, resident Marco Gottardis said a lot of people have read all of the information about the parking permit program. Fraga shook her head as he spoke. Gottardis later asked her to not shake her head when residents speak and said he found is disrespectful to residents who are commenting during the public comment period.
“We still don’t like the plan,” Gottardis said. “I believe in equitable parking, I’m not a NIMBY. I believe in equitable parking throughout the city. And I don’t think any resident should have to pay for it, whether you’re in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, whether you’re in the high school district, or whether you’re on the west side.”
He said he disagreed with the task force not putting residents first. “We pay very high taxes in this tow, and it’s not being respected, and what’s going to happen with this system is, there’s going to be a constant spillover of cars into other neighborhoods as you increase the density in the city,” Gottardis said. “What we really need is a long-term solution,” he said, adding that residents would like to discuss possibilities with the task force. “We have not been given that opportunity. We’ve had limited meetings. And also, you haven’t listened to us,” he said. “You just provided us with a modified plan that’s fundamentally not changed. I’m not going to get into the Robocop thing about the surveillance, but that is also oppressive…I don’t understand why you want to do this. I don’t know what the reason is, whether it’s to make money.”
Gottardis said officials should be thinking about solutions that have worked in other cities in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, where parking garages are placed outside the city and people are shuttling in. He also said other solutions should be developed.
Resident Bill Wolfe said he had some fundamental objections to the parking permit plan. “We have a parking permit system in place in our high school neighborhood, and it was highly necessary because before it was adopted, every possible place to park was taken every school day of the year. And it was apparently impossible for the high school to do anything about it and this was a good solution,” Wolfe said. ” It remains a good solution. It is also a very inexpensive solution because it relies on residents having a small decal that they only need to replace when they replace their cars. I don’t believe there is a lot of expense to the municipality with the system as it is, although it has been implied that that is the case. I just want to say that I think it works well.”
Wolfe said contractors shouldn’t need permits. Currently, police don’t ticket contractors who are doing work at residences, and the system should remain simple and be kept as it is, he said.
A new resident of Boudinot Street who was previously a chief financial officer for a major aerospace company said if someone had asked him for the pre-approval of funding for a capital expenditure project that had not yet been approved, he would have sent them out of his office very quickly. He said the parking plan was backward. “I think once a plan is defined and ultimately accepted by the community, then it would make sense to fund that plan, but not until that plan has been reasonably vetted and ultimately accepted,” he said.
Former Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore also spoke during public comment and said the pandemic has impacted the community’s ability to have a voice in plans and deliberations. Due to the pandemic, there have been no meetings in person since March of 2020 and residents have not had enough opportunities to fully vet any proposals, she said.
Police already have a license plate reader
It came to light at the council meeting Monday night that police already have a license plate reader. The police car the plate reader was installed on crashed during a blizzard in the winter, and Mayor Mark Freda said it has not been used since then. The license plate reader was given to the police department in 2016 by the county prosecutor. It was used to look for expired registrations and suspended licenses for registered owners of vehicles, to determine whether a car had been reported stolen, or if the registered owner of a car was a wanted person, Freda said.