The Utah Legislature's refusal to release records it agrees are public without recouping the expense of compiling the documents is a bad decision that cheapens the state's commitment to open government.
The records in question detail the deliberations involved during the recent redistricting process, in which four Congressional precincts were drawn. Public interest groups, news organizations and the state Democratic Party have petitioned for full release of the documents, but the state has refused until someone pays the $14,250 the state claims it cost to produce the records.
The requesting parties have insisted the fees be waived, also as a point of principle. And so we are at a deadlock that could result in a costly and unnecessary court battle.
The state's records keepers are not arguing the documents should be shielded from the public, but that the cost of producing them ought to be borne by those requesting the records. The Utah Government Records and Management Act allows agencies to recover costs involved in complying with requests, but it also allows them to waive such fees if disclosure serves a legitimate public interest.
The records detail communications between those directing the redistricting process. The question of whether any shenanigans were afoot is certainly a matter of public interest. It also happens to be in the political interest of the Democratic Party, which hasn't helped matters by loudly implying the lawmakers have something to hide by charging fees for disclosure.
While the fees are high, they are certainly not prohibitive. The argument that they are meant to dissuade further inquiry and preserve some kind of cover-up should not be taken seriously.
Parenthetically, this dustup would not have occurred if, in the first place, the Legislature had pursued the redistricting process in a completely open fashion instead of holding closed-door caucus meetings in which boundary strategies may have been discussed.
The dispute suggests there are still hard feelings among legislative leaders and staffers over the controversy generated more than a year ago when the Legislature passed a bill that would have sharply restricted the scope of the state open records laws. Under public pressure, lawmakers recanted and repealed the bill.
One of the chief complaints at the time was that the laws were ripe for abuse by journalists or political operatives who might cast a broad net for massive numbers of records as part of a "fishing expedition" in search of a scandal. Some public servants have looked upon records requests as a personal affront to their integrity, an implication they have done something worth hiding from the public.
As such, the Legislature's records committee may see its decision on the fee waiver as a stand against yellow journalism or political sabotage, or as its duty to ensure taxpayers' money is well spent.
But to many residents, it appears as nothing more than a political tantrum. Lawmakers should take a step back to look at the big picture and recognize that releasing the records is the best way to resolve an impasse that's largely of its own creation.
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