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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 - 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.


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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

“’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.


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Food & Water Watch is a nonprofit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food. We challenge the corporate control and abuse of our food and water resources by empowering people to take action and by transforming the public consciousness about what we eat and drink.

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