Princeton Public Utilities Commission members presented a unified response to a city action that could result in their removal if voters OK a Nov. 3 ballot question.
Commission Chair Greg Hanson and Commissioners Richard Schwartz and Dan Erickson responded to requests for comment after last Friday’s 3-2 vote by the city leaders to place this question on the Nov 3 ballot:
“Shall the Princeton Public Utilities Commission be abolished?”
The trio was joined by General Manager Keith Butcher in responding to the ballot question.
The Princeton Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is comprised of three members, appointed by the Princeton City Council.
Commissioners serve staggered three-year terms.
The PUC provides oversight and guidance to the general manager in the operation of Princeton Public Utilities in service to its ratepayers.
The three current leaders would be the only individuals affected if voters pass the Nov. 3 ballot question. Butcher would remain as general manager.
Hanson said he didn’t attend the 3 p.m. meeting on purpose because he did not know if any of the other commissioners were going to be there.
“If they would have done that or attended via Zoom, it would have constituted a quorum. We could have been asked to make a decision, and I didn’t want to do that,” he said last week.
Secondly, Hanson said because of the Aug. 13 Princeton City Council meeting that contained a lot of animosity between him and Mayor Brad Schumacher, he felt it was best for him to stay away because the council had a key decision to make.
“I didn’t think making the discussion about the mayor and the PUC chairman would be helpful,” Hanson added. “The council had things to discuss. I was willing to accept the consequences of their decision,” he said, referring to the 3-2 vote.
Voting in favor of placing the question on the ballot during the council meeting were Schumacher, Councilor Jenny Gerold, and Councilor Jeff Reynolds.
Councilor Jack Edmonds and Councilor Jules Zimmer voted against placing the question on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
Hanson said he was “very disappointed” that the Princeton City Council was unwilling to read a statement he had prepared in advance and Edmonds wanted to read out loud.
“I made the statement that I did because I thought it was important that they hear something from me,” Hanson added. “I wanted it to be part of the public record, and why they chose not to do so and move on, I don’t know.”
Not allowing open forum during the Aug. 21 didn’t sit well with Hanson, either.
“Not hearing from the public seems a little contradictory,” he said. “There were people who wanted to make a comment to the council before they made the decision and the council just wrote them off,” Hanson said. “How they could do that in good conscience is absolutely astounding. This is now a political issue. We are going to have to make sure citizens hear both sides of this argument.”
Schwartz said he was never invited by the city to attend the meeting via Zoom, and there wasn’t any open forum, he told the Union-Times, adding the PUC is not against a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program, a claim made by Schumacher.
“We, as a commission, have been waiting for proper protocol for the ad hoc PILOT committee that was organized,” Schwartz said, adding, “There’s nothing in our hands. There’s been no stalling on the part of the PUC or anything else.”
Schwartz said he was tremendously disturbed by the Princeton City Council’s decision not to allow public comment during open forum last Friday.
“Why would you not allow public input when you hold public office?” he said.
Schwartz contended three Princeton City Council members [Schumacher, Gerold and Reynolds have always voted the same way regardless of what the agenda item is, the importance of it, or the reasoning behind a given item.
“To me, it makes no sense,” Schwartz added. “They are three people in a clique. Their votes seem to be predetermined. It doesn’t make any difference what evidence is brought forward. That is not the way democracy is supposed to work.”
Erickson said he wasn’t able to attend last Friday’s meeting because of a personal concern.
Regarding the council’s decision not to allow open forum and citizen comment, Erickson stated, “I’m Princeton Planning Commission chair, and we have public hearings to allow every single person to be heard. That’s democracy.”
“That was something that I really didn’t think I would see in America,” he added.
Erickson said his commission predecessors were conservative and saved money to created reserves to pay for future electric and water capital expenditures.
“PPU has been very well run,” he said. “I can’t see any other reason for them to ask for this question other than they want at chance to get at that money.”
Most ratepayers Erickson said he’s talked to don’t know how PILOT works.
“They have no clue that in their rate per kilowatt hour they were paying a tax to the city,” he said. “If they can claim income was raised from that, they can claim they didn’t raise taxes. That’s my opinion. It’s kind of a secret tax. If a politician wants to claim they didn’t raise taxes, they get control of a PUC, they then raise the PILOT, which then raises the rates. It’s a ruse. That’s how I see it.”
Erickson said he called Gerold and Zimmer and told them whatever an ad hoc committee decided on the PILOT, he was going to back them.
“It sounded like they had come up with some sort of a plan, but it doesn’t seem like the mayor and Councilor [Jeff] Reynolds wanted to hear it,” Erickson said.
Butcher told the Union-Times it was obvious to him that the special meeting was going to be all about the mayor.
“It wasn’t going to be about facts and finding constructive ways to improve the Princeton community,” he said, adding he expected the special meeting to represent political theatre at its worst.
“The mayor’s threats and attacks directed at the officers and staff of Princeton Public Utilities have been ongoing since he started his campaign two years ago, which preceded all current commissioners and myself,” Butcher said.
Furthermore, Butcher said abolishing the PUC has been Schumacher’s goal from the day he took office.
Regarding attendance at last Friday’s meeting, Butcher said if he or any of the commissioners had attended, Schumacher would have attacked them personally.
Butcher said the outcome of the PILOT ad hoc committee and the reporting of the results was a combined effort.
“We tried to find a way to address the council concerns. We were drafting it and continuing to kick it around until about 2:20 p.m.” Butcher said. “We were working right up to the end to put something together to address the council’s concerns. We were trying to put a deal together at the last minute and put a solution together. The council ignored that.”
Butcher found it disturbing that Hanson’s statement was not read aloud at the meeting by Edmonds. He also commented on the 3-2 ballot question vote.
“This decision is short-sighted and is reckless,” Butcher said. “I don’t think it’s in the interest of our ratepayers nor in the interest of the city or the city taxpayers.”