Princeton officials Tuesday denied a request from Planet Princeton for public records related to illegal dumping at the municipal sewer department property on River Road.
Planet Princeton had requested various documents under the state’s Open Public Records Act and New Jersey Common Law. The documents Planet Princeton requested included:
-All contracts between the municipality and sewer contractor ICUNJ from Jan. 1 of 2015 to June 1 of 2019
-Copies of all emails to or from the owner of ICUNJ and municipal officials between Sept. 1, 2018 and June 1, 2019.
-Copies of all emails sent to or received from former Princeton Director of Infrastructure Robert Hough referencing: the Princeton landfill, solar arrays, the town’s solar array consultant, the solar array consultant’s annual reports for 2018 and 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and all groundwater quality reports for the municipal landfill written between January of 2018 and June 1 of 2019.
-Each memo, document, and report on file for the Princeton landfill or the River Road sewer department site for 2018 and 2019.
Municipal officials denied the entire request, based on instructions from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office about how to handle public records inquires regarding the the sewer department site. “We were instructed that due to the ongoing investigation we are unable to search for or provide responsive documents,” reads the denial letter sent to Planet Princeton Tuesday as a scanned image. “Instead, all OPRA requests must be made directly to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.”
Included in the denial was a copy of a letter from Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri to Princeton officials instructing the municipality to direct all public records requests related to “the Princeton Sewer Operating Committee, the operations, employees, the River Road site, or any environmental condition related to the site” to the prosecutor’s office.
“Due to the ongoing criminal investigation, no record or document is to be retrieved, forwarded or provided by your office,” reads the letter. “Any and all requests for information must be sent to the prosecutor for review and response.”
Last week, Mercer County also denied public records requests from Planet Princeton for records regarding the River Road property, citing the prosecutor’s investigation. The lawyer for the county also claimed in a form letter he didn’t customize that the request was improper.
“Please be advised your request is denied, as it is XXXXXXXXX. The County is not required to conduct research, or create records, in response to an OPRA request,” wrote lawyer Paul Adezio. “,OPRA ‘… is not intended as a research tool… to force government officials to identify and siphon useful information.’…In addition, a request for ‘any’ or ‘all’ government records is an improper request under OPRA.”
Walter Luers, the top lawyer in the state for public records cases, said it is generally accepted that records do not become retroactively confidential. “Once a document is a public record, it stays public, even if its somehow drawn into a future civil or criminal investigation,” Luers said.
Luers said county prosecutors lack the authority to direct municipalities not to comply with the law. “The New Jersey Legislature created a framework for the public to access public records, subject to certain exceptions and exemptions,” Luers said. “Nothing gives the prosecutor the right to dictate to another public agency how to respond to OPRA requests. Princeton has an obligation to comply with OPRA, and that obligation must be exercised freely and without interference from law enforcement.”
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