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Trenton Water Utility Sale Would Undermine Public Trust Doctrine
Food & Water Watch Analysis Demonstrates Legal Need for Public Referendum Regarding Water Utility Sale
WASHINGTON - September 11 - New legal analysis in papers filed today in the Appellate Division for the New Jersey Superior Court by Food & Water Watch demonstrate that denying citizens of Trenton the right to vote on the sale of the city’s water utility to the private corporation American Water undermines fundamental principles in state law guaranteeing that water resources are economically and prudently managed for the benefit of the public. The “amicus curiae” or “friend of the court” brief filed by the consumer advocacy group further supports a citizen’s movement in Trenton to require a referendum to determine the fate of the water system there.
“The ‘Public Trust Doctrine,’ is a foundation of New Jersey water
law, meaning that the ultimate ownership of drinking water rests in the
people,” noted Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah
Hauter. “New Jersey courts are therefore required to interpret these
laws in a way that ensures the that the public can exercise its right
to directly participate in the decision to sell off major components of
its publicly-owned water system.”
Food & Water Watch filed the “amicus curiae brief” after months of intense battle regarding the sale of a portion of Trenton’s water utility to American Water. In July, Judge Linda Feinberg of the Mercer County Superior Court ruled against a public referendum to decide the fate of the embattled water system. This decision came two months after Feinberg agreed to reassess an earlier decision to allow the sale to go through.
The analysis also supports papers filed earlier this month by the Trenton citizen’s group Keep Trenton Water Public, which demonstrate that while both the City of Trenton and American Water claims that their opposition to the referendum is valid due to state statute, that statute actually only governs a situation where the city sells property to a private company operating within its boundaries. In this case, the private company would actually run the system outside of Trenton’s boundaries.
“’The Public Trust Doctrine’ requires that cities closely follow the
state statutes governing the sale of their utilities, which are a
commonly-owned asset. The Mercer County Superior Court undermined this
principle when it denied the citizens of Trenton the right to vote on
this sale,” noted Hauter. “It also sets a potentially dangerous
precedent which may prevent citizens from voting on large municipal
water utility sales like this one in the future.”
Read Food & Water Watch’s "friend of the court" brief here.