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Opinion: West Windsor rift between new council majority, mayor could stifle progress

West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh was recently re-elected to his fourth term. It’s fair to say the town’s residents, like me, are pleased with the performance of our municipal government. We have received high-quality services in a fiscally prudent manner without a hint of impropriety. However, if you had attended the reorganization meeting of our town government Jan. 1, you would come away with a quite different view.

There is a major rift between a newly emerged majority on West Windsor’s council and our mayor. The new majority is determined to derail Mayor Hsueh’s fourth term. It is dissatisfied with the direction the mayor has taken our town over the last 12 years, while most of our community, as demonstrated by the margin of our mayor’s November re-election victory, is pleased with the direction in which he has taken us.

Most of West Windsor’s voters like the fact that we are a full-service community, with regular trash pick-ups, a vibrant arts center, an excellent senior center and many beautiful, well-maintained parks, including one with an Asian theme. We are OK with maintaining a decent operating surplus that helps us achieve a AAA bond rating and a stable property-tax rate, which, for what we get, is the best deal in Mercer County.

West Windsor’s Mayor Hsueh is a class act who conducts himself with decorum. In addition, he is extremely hard-working, accessible and very knowledgeable about state and local government.

This past November, through a ballot anomaly that placed two candidates from another ticket beneath the mayor on the ballot, two opposition candidates were elected. (One of them, based on her vote count, would probably have won regardless of her ballot position; the other owes his office to the ballot’s construct.) The opposition candidates have forged an alliance with anti-administration holdover Bryan Maher (who was appointed council president by a 3-2 vote). Maher is stylistically and ideologically the exact opposite of Mayor Hsueh. Where the mayor is low-key, civil, conciliatory and data-driven, Maher is loud, pugnacious, dogmatic and squeaky wheel-driven. Maher and his two allies now control the five-member town council. I have no doubt that he and his allies will do everything within their power to make the mayor look bad. The first issue over which they have chosen to draw swords is the annual selection of the township attorney.

West Windsor has a nonpartisan mayor-council form of government, under the Faulkner Act. Under this form of government, the mayor is the executive authority and is responsible for the appointment and removal of all department heads. The township attorney, who serves as legal advisor to the mayor and council, is appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the council.

The current township attorney, Mike Herbert, has served for three years. (His law firm has represented the town for 15 years.) He is talented and has extensive municipal government experience. Maher’s allies have pressed the mayor to competitively bid the contract through an RFP (request for proposal) under the guise that it is best practice. Legal services fall under the professional service provisions of the public bidding laws and, as a result, do not have to be competitively bid — the thinking being that the selection of professional services should not necessarily be made solely on the basis of price. While price is a key determinant in any buying decision, in the case of certain types of expenditures, other factors are more salient. For example, in my own case, I have opted on occasion to go out of my health-care plan’s network to see a particular specialist and pay more than I would for a doctor in the network.

In an attempt to placate Maher and his allies, the mayor has agreed to competitively bid the township’s attorney contract. I think he is making a mistake, because the underlying issue is neither Herbert’s fee nor his expertise. It’s about trying to make it clear to the mayor that the council will set the future tone and direction for the township. It is a fight, not about an attorney, but for the future of West Windsor.

I have not always agreed with Herbert’s style. (I believe, on certain occasions, that Herbert has played too much of a role at council meetings; this can easily be corrected.) But Mayor Hsueh should not give up the fight to retain him.

Mayor Hsueh has the right to appoint West Windsor’s attorney and he should not concede that right to those who oppose the appointment for political — not good-government — reasons. The mayor has started down a slippery slope.

Appeasement never works, especially when those with whom you are dealing have a hidden agenda. I would not be surprised to see a low-ball bid for West Windsor’s attorney. If that is the case, I hope the mayor does not give up the authority that was given to him by the voters of West Windsor to those who seek to change the direction of our community.