Planet Princeton has filed a lawsuit seeking public records related to the municipal sewer department site, the former landfill and the town’s solar arrays. Princeton officials and a lawyer for Mercer County both denied requests for records, citing an ongoing investigation into activity at the sewer department site by the Mercer County Prosecutor.
The lawsuit was filed on July 3. On Thursday, July 11, Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson issued an order to show cause in the case and set a court date for Oct. 7.
On July 2, Princeton officials 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 (OPRA) 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, and 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 a memo from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office about how to handle public records inquires regarding the sewer department site, and referred requests 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.”
In late June, 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.”
Planet Princeton is being represented by lawyer Walter Luers in the lawsuit. Luers said it is generally accepted that records do not become retroactively confidential even if they are later drawn into a future civil or criminal investigation.
He also 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.”
It is also unclear how some of the records relate to the investigation, if they do at all. Planet Princeton requested records related to the former landfill and the solar arrays. Those records were also denied in the request.
Planet Princeton sought comment Friday from municipal and county officials regarding the lawsuit. Spokespeople for the county and prosecutor did not respond. Princeton Administrator Marc Dashield issued a statement from the municipality.
“Princeton is and has always been committed to open government and to making its records available to the public. The circumstances here, however, are highly unusual,” reads the statement. “Anything connected or potentially connected to the activities that took place at the River Road/SOC site is under criminal investigation by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, and the prosecutor has told us in writing that all OPRA requests must go through his office. It is critical to the public welfare that we do nothing to undermine the integrity of the criminal investigation, and unless directed otherwise by the court, we will continue to abide by the prosecutor’s written instructions.”
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