SALT LAKE CITY — State Democratic Party leaders don't think they should be stuck with a nearly $15,000 bill for public documents they requested regarding the Utah Legislature's controversial redistricting process last year.
Democratic Party attorney Joe Hatch contends the records — which amount to about 16,000 pages of emails, text messages and other correspondence of all 104 state lawmakers — were sought in the public interest and therefore should not be subject to fees.
"What we wanted is the kind of information needed to understand the nuts and bolts of how decisions were made," he told a legislative committee on Monday. "It is absolutely imperative that the public see these documents."
Democrats allege the Republican-controlled Legislature conspired behind closed doors to redraw legislative and congressional district maps following the 2010 Census to the detriment of the minority party.
Republican leaders say Democrats want the documents mostly to use in a potential lawsuit challenging how lawmakers created the new boundaries. Ivan Dubois, state GOP executive director, called the massive request "irresponsible."
"They misused government resources and they should pay for it," said Dubois, noting Republicans paid $2,500 for the 2,000 pages of Democratic redistricting documents it obtained.
Both parties made their arguments before the Legislative Records Committee — comprised of Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, and House Minority Leader David Litvack, R-Salt Lake.
After 2½ hours of testimony, the panel voted to continue the meeting and postpone a decision until later this month. Hatch intends to gather journalists and academics to testify that releasing the documents without the fee is in the public interest.
The matter went to the committee after the Democrats appealed a state Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel decision to charge them an additional $9,250 for the documents. The office maintains that the records request primarily benefits the party and that it isn't eligible for a fee waiver under state law.
The party had already paid $5,000 and didn't know about the added fees until it went to pick up the records in May, said Matt Lyon, Utah Democratic Party executive director. And then it wasn't given a choice of which of the three boxes of information it could take.
Legislative attorney Robert Rees said the request turned out to be much larger than anticipated. The legislative research office spent 506 hours compiling the documents, including devoting 55 employees to the task for an entire week.
Democrats can't receive a fee waiver because only an individual — defined in the law as a human being — is eligible, Rees said.
"It's clear the Democratic Party is not a human being," he said.
Hatch said the law makes no sense. Even GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney considers corporations as people for tax purposes, he told the committee.
"Only a human being can ask for a fee waiver but groups of human beings can't ask for a fee waiver?" said Hatch, a former Salt Lake County councilman.
Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said regardless of the committee's decision, the Legislature ought to make the records public on a website now that the work is done.
"To let those documents just sit away in a tub somewhere without the possibility of seeing the light of public after the taxpayers have paid for it is just dead wrong," he said.
Romero said the legislative research office "erred" in its decision to charge the additional fees. It failed to notify Democratic leaders along the way and didn't let them choose which box to take, he said.
"That's troubling to me," he said.
Romero made a motion to waive the fees and release the documents. But he withdrew it after fellow Democrat Litvack argued against it.
While there's no doubt the public would benefit, Litvack said, he didn't hear compelling evidence that the records request was made with the public as the primary beneficiary. He also said it is appropriate to charge fees.
Dabakis said litigation has not been ruled out, but a decision can't be made without the documents.
"Maybe there won't be anything there. Maybe we'll find something out," he said.
Asked if it's too late to sue, Dabakis said, "No. We've got 10 years."
Utah lawmakers will again tackle redistricting following the 2020 Census.
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