A month after Planet Princeton filed a lawsuit challenging the denial of a public records request, town officials and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office have changed their position on releasing policing agreements between the municipality and Princeton University, saying they no longer object to releasing the agreements in full.
Princeton University, however, has asked to become a party in the Planet Princeton lawsuit. The school objects to the release of certain information in the agreements, including maps and an index outlining the jurisdiction of the campus police, claiming the release of the information would threaten the school’s safety and security.
Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson held a conference call last week to discuss the case.
“We are no longer opposing the release of the documents. We are willing to release the documents,” a lawyer for the town, Victoria Britton, told the judge on the conference call. “The only reason we have not is that the university has expressed safety concerns and notified us two weeks ago they intended to intervene. As a courtesy to them, we are not releasing the documents.”
The school objects to the release of a map that shows which police department has jurisdiction over which areas of the campus and town. The school also objects to the release of an index that lists which crimes each police force respond to. The school, the prosecutor’s office, and the town no longer object to the release of the agreement itself, just the attachments.
Four agreements regarding policing have been signed since May of 2013. The town agreed to release the agreements, without attachments, to Planet Princeton by May 2.
Given that the university is the only party opposing the release of the map and index, Jacobson asked who would be responsible for legal fees moving forward if Planet Princeton wins the case. The outside counsel for the university, James Lidon of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, said state statute is fairly clear that the liability for legal fees goes to public agencies. Jacobson said it was an open issue given that the only reason the documents are not all being turned over is because of a private party’s privacy interest. She said one possibility was for the town to file a cross claim against the university for fees.
On Feb. 10, Planet Princeton filed a request under the state’s Open Public Records Act and common law seeking the town’s police operating agreement with the school in order to find out which police department has jurisdiction over which areas in the town. On Feb. 12, after consulting lawyers from Princeton University , the town denied Planet Princeton’s public records request.
The town denied the entire request, claiming an exception under OPRA that exempts from public access security measures and surveillance techniques that would create a a risk to the safety of people, property, electronic data or software.
The prosecutor’s office claimed the agreement is not a government record under state law.
Planet Princeton contends that the agreement is a public record and that citizens in the town have a right to know who has policing jurisdiction where and over what issues in the town and on campus. Any sensitive information over tactical responses details or emergency response procedures could simply be redacted from the document.
Planet Princeton is being represented by Walter Luers, a Clinton-based lawyer who specializes in public records cases. Luers is the head of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government. Leuers represented a New Brunswick journalist in a similar case regarding a policing agreement between the City of New Brunswick an Rutgers University. All of the records in that case were turned over before the case went to court.