Mark Freda

New Princeton Mayor Mark Freda outside his home in late December. Photo: Rich Hundley III.

By Krystal Knapp, Planet Princeton

Mark Freda will be sworn in as the mayor of Princeton during a public meeting on Zoom Monday, Jan. 4, at 5:30 p.m. Freda, a lifelong Princeton resident, served on the former Princeton Borough Council, was the director of emergency services for the borough from 2009 to 2011, and was the chair of Princeton’s consolidation transition task force in 2012 and 2013. A Notre Dame High School graduate, he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and public administration from the College of New Jersey.

Freda, 64, worked in corporate real estate and facilities management for more than 25 years. He has served as the global head of facilities and real estate for the Soros Fund Management in New York City, worked for Pfizer as the director of New York City site operations, and was the vice president for corporate services and real estate for Goldman Sachs. Currently, he is the president of the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, a paid position, and has served as a member of the squad and a volunteer firefighter for more than four decades.

The mayor of Princeton serves a four-year term. Freda takes over from Liz Lempert, who did not run for reelection last year. Freda, a Democrat, ran unopposed for mayor in both the primary and the general election after developing a broad base of support early on last year.

Freda ran on a platform of working to fulfill more of the promises of consolidation, make local government more open and transparent, tapping into the expertise of staff members and volunteers in the community when it comes to decision making, and addressing rising property taxes. He also cited town and gown relations, community relations, and economic development as top priorities.

We caught up with him in late December for a Q&A now that he is about to officially take office. Following are our questions in bold, and his responses.

What is your favorite book?  I love to read. My current books on hand to read include Walkable City Rules by Jeff Speck and The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins, both great gifts from supporters. I’m also reading Madeline Albright’s book, Hell and Other Destinations from the Princeton Public Library’s virtual event earlier this year, Barak Obama’s A Promised Land, and Revolutionary Princeton 1774-1783 by William Kidder.

What is your favorite movie? I am from the “I go to the movies for entertainment” mold, so, movies from the James Bond series to American Graffiti to Titanic, plus many more.

Who has been the most inspirational person in your life? I like the expression it takes a village. But my inspirations in life are not just from people, they are also from a number of defining moments — situations that show what you are made of and are truly learning moments in your life. When I was a child, my mother and a great group of older relatives instilled a number of qualities in me that I am still proud of. I’ve worked since the 5th grade, and over a number of different jobs, I was inspired by a number of my coworkers, especially those from my younger days who took the time to point out how actions and decisions can impact your life for years to come. Joining the Princeton Fire Department in 1974 and the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad in 1975, and taking on leadership positions in both organizations have been invaluable to my growth and success over the years. For the political part of my life, there have been a number of past local area leaders who helped to mold me into what I am today. It has been and will continue to be, an ongoing process.

Do you have a particular leader you try to emulate in your work, and if so who?  Again, it takes a village.  Being a fan of history, I have read a number of works on past presidents, generals, and other types of leaders I’ve learned a lot from. I have worked with, and learned from, many former Princeton Borough and Princeton Township mayors and council/committee people as well as a number of former state assembly people and state senators. To me, it is all pretty simple.  Do the right thing, and I think most people can tell when we are or are not doing that. Respect, fairness, honesty, transparency, and not playing games — these are all attributes I value and try to emulate. I set fairly high standards for myself; most times I can meet them. I also try to always be open to what I can learn from anyone and everyone I meet. The process continues still.

What do you see as the role of the mayor in Princeton, which has a borough form of government?  There is the role outlined by state statute. In the borough form of government, the role is described as a “weak” mayor. But if I take to heart what I have heard from the council members and what I have heard from many of our residents, they all want a mayor who is a leader. Different people provide different types of leadership. My goal is to be a leader who listens, but also drives us to decisions. A leader who invites public input, but knows when that has been achieved and knows it is time to move on. A leader who encourages and welcomes differing viewpoints and helps to see that all of those are considered before a decision is made. A leader who creates opportunities for cooperation, but does not worry about personally getting the credit. A leader who can push for big picture thinking and not let us get too narrowly focused just because that is easier to do.  The mayor also needs to be the backbone at times, the one to explain why we may not be able to afford to do something or explain why the final decision on some topic was different from what some may have hoped for. The mayor needs to see that the governing body communicates well with residents and staff. The mayor is one of seven elected officials who together form a strong team to help guide Princeton into the future.

How have you been spending the past few months preparing for your new role? On December 15thof 2019, I announced I was running for mayor. From that day on I have been attending many, many municipal meetings of all types. I have been putting myself out there for people to talk to and for people to get a sense of who I am through social media and individual meetings and calls. Council members and I have spoken regularly for the last seven months, frequently on a weekly basis. Mayor Lempert and I have talked numerous times. In the last few months, I have talked to many of the town staff members one on one. I have tried to keep track of all the suggestions and concerns expressed to me over the last year. But to be honest I have paid attention to what has been happening in and around our municipal government for longer than the last year. I do not take the responsibility of the mayor’s position lightly, nor do I assume I know all the answers.  But I do know I have put significant effort into being as prepared as possible from day one.

What is the most pressing issue you will work to address after you take office?

The most pressing issue I will work on after taking office is developing the working relationship between the council, the staff, and other entities in and around Princeton. I believe we need this strong foundational relationship between these interacting entities to effectively address a large number of issues facings us. I truly want to start to accomplish items on day one. However, I realize that day two, three or a little further out will be more realistic. I will take the time to listen, observe, and learn to better understand what is working well, what can be improved, and to not assume that my perceptions coming into the position are totally accurate.

What are your top three priorities as mayor for your first year in office?  My top three priorities as mayor for my first year in office are to listen, learn, and act. Listen to the council, our staff members, and others involved in a large number of challenges and needs that we face in order to learn from the conversations with these parties what are the most pressing and highest impacts issues. We need to act to address these issues as a municipality that prioritizes high customer service, active listening when it comes to our constituents, public participation, and making decisions in a timely manner.

What do you see as challenges in addressing those priorities?  Mayor Lempert has been our mayor since we consolidated the borough and the township. As the second mayor since consolidation, this will be our first change in this position. Change can cause stress, and working through that as quickly as possible is important. There is also COVID-19 and all its many facets, including the vaccine rollout, the continued safety protocols we need to follow, our municipal goals for 2020 that were not achieved due to the pandemic, and the impacts of the pandemic on so many aspects of our community, from our businesses to the economic security of individual residents. In addition, we have a number of housing decisions related to the affordable housing lawsuit recently settled. We also need to complete the harmonizing of the former borough and township ordinances, move forward on a new master plan for the town, and fine-tune our relationship with Princeton University. I also want to consider how we can work with the school system and the county to best utilize our resident’s tax dollars and control the tax impacts of our budgets on our residents. Currently, resident’s tax bills can be broken down as 25% for the town, 50% for the school system, and 25% for the county. The biggest priority is figuring out what our priorities for 2021 need to be.

What do you see as long-term challenges and opportunities for Princeton as a community? 

In addition to what I have already mentioned, housing — affordable and for middle-income people — are critical needs. But not just what is being looked at right now, also what we need to provide over the next five to ten years. As with most of this list, each item is both a challenge and an opportunity. And not just the types of housing; but how much?  What is the right density of housing for our community?  Where should density happen?

The vitality and growth of our businesses are both important for our community.  How do we support them, help them survive?  How do we promote Princeton as a regional and statewide destination going forward?  Why don’t we leverage the significance of our Revolutionary War history and the Battle of Princeton as a magnet?

Concerning civil rights and human services, we need to have continued conversations and actions to ensure all our residents are respected and that we as a municipality offer, ourselves or through others, help to provide the resources that are most needed in our community.

For sustainability, how we can increase sustainable practices and initiatives to increase wellbeing for all.

There are also many other items and issues to address. Our priority will be to balance what is needed with what the municipality can realistically achieve and afford. On some fronts, we will need to be okay with incremental changes. Our resources are limited and while we will do our best to make advancements on all of these challenges and opportunities, we cannot do everything we may be asked for and we cannot be everything to everyone.

Anything else you would want to add? 

Our system works best when we all work together. If we all respect each other’s opinions and listen to each other. If we are all willing to be flexible and reasonable. If we all trust that robust public discussion and review of ideas are okay. If we all understand that all input is valuable, no matter what is the final outcome of any topic. If we all understand that not agreeing with each other on a specific topic is not a personal affront or attack. If we achieve all of this, we will achieve a lot together.