Marrying the Princetons: Saying “I Do” was the Easy Part

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Joseph StefkoAnybody who has followed the local government consolidation issue knows the difficulty of enacting significant, large-scale change. Old habits die hard, so it is no surprise that the procedural challenges to municipal restructuring are often daunting. Ever powerful are the inertia of the status quo and the “leap of faith” required on the part of voters to be convinced it’s possible to get to greener pastures.

Such is the case in New Jersey, where history hasn’t been kind to the municipal consolidation movement. In the time between a 1934 New York Times article lamenting the state’s inability to streamline its local government structure and today, just two consolidations occurred. In January, the number grows to three as the Township and Borough of Princeton merge following an affirmative 2011 referendum.

The Princeton experience was anything but an impulsive trip to a Las Vegas wedding chapel. In fact, it took the better part of 50 years, countless studies and three defeated referenda – in 1951, 1979 and 1996 – for the two Princetons to tie the knot. And now that the community is deep in the throes of transition, some observers suggest that the five decades leading up to the vote was the easy part.

Bloomberg Businessweek and NJ Spotlight recently profiled the transition, providing a window into the details of the implementation process. What’s happening today in Princeton serves as a teachable moment for other communities, in New Jersey and beyond. That so few communities actually get to this point is all the more reason why the Princeton transition offers valuable insight.

Let’s review how Princeton has structured its transition process. During 2010-11, the actual consolidation plan was developed through intensive study and consideration of options by a Joint Consolidation and Shared Services Study Commission, comprised of representatives from both municipalities (and assisted by CGR). Following the successful November 2011 referendum, the two governing bodies established a Transition Task Force and appointed six members each. Since February, that Task Force has been working to resolve a host of issues related to the actual merger – from the high-profile (e.g., reconciling employee procedures and org charts) to the mechanical (e.g., standardizing police operating procedures and selecting a single telephone system).

The Transition Task Force serves as the “taskmaster” for implementation, ensuring all decisions and actions of the governing bodies remain on schedule and position the community for the official start of consolidation on January 1, 2013.

The Task Force has made considerable progress in a few short months. Notably, it has made recommendations to the governing bodies on resolving departmental structures, IT infrastructure and “buyout” provisions for affected employees. And on more challenging issues such as selecting “Day One” heads in consolidating departments, the Task Force has established clear guidelines to ensure an orderly, transparent process. It has also served a critically important public information role, ensuring the transition process proceeds with the same openness and community engagement as the consolidation study process.

But as the transition process hits its stride and more pointed questions arise, some observers are pointing out the real challenge of implementing change. The lead-up to consolidation took 50 years, after all; the transition process can only take one.

What more can we learn from the Princeton transition?

  • The challenge of translating concept into reality. Princeton voters endorsed a consolidation plan in November 2011. But a consolidation plan only provides an intended destination, not necessarily the complete roadmap. A host of decisions is required on facilities, departmental structures, service levels and more. Negotiating questions within the spirit of the original consolidation plan and ensuring sustained progress toward answers is the Transition Task Force’s most critical objective.
  • The continuity challenge. Under NJ law, the Commission that designed the consolidation plan continues to exist until six months post-consolidation (i.e. June 2013). In Princeton, the Commission fills an oversight role, meeting semi-monthly and lending critical institutional knowledge to the Transition Task Force. Substantive continuity is critical to an effective implementation process. After all, the Commission developed the plan and the Task Force is implementing it, with the governing bodies rightly exercising final authority over the entire process. Effective, regular communication among all stakeholders has been critically important in Princeton’s process thus far.
  • The governance challenge. Some aspects of municipal consolidation can be “eased into,” such as having staff in common departments shadow one another or beginning to merge software platforms. However, governance cannot. The fact remains that during the entirety of any consolidation transition, a community still has two separate governments with two separate constituencies and, occasionally, two distinct points of view on common issues. This places a premium on intergovernmental coordination. In Princeton, the governing bodies meet jointly in open, public sessions to receive the Transition Task Force’s recommendations and discuss options for moving forward. Where disagreement occurs, it’s addressed expeditiously and openly. Other communities would do well to learn from this model.

Countless communities consider consolidation options, but precious few actually merge. That’s what makes the process in Princeton so important to local government observers across the country, and why a group of students from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School are chronicling the process. It’s an invaluable opportunity to learn what happens when the rubber meets the road.

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