SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Democrats are stuck with a $14,000 bill for public documents after the Legislative Records Committee voted 3-1 on Monday to deny the party's appeal for a fee waiver.
Party officials say the documents — approximately 16,000 pages of emails, correspondence and other records generated by the Legislature's redistricting process — are being sought in the public interest. But committee members argued that the Utah Democrats' request falls short of state policy for waiving fees.
Much of the debate Monday focused on the wording of state statute, which says that fees for public documents can be waived if the request "primarily" serves the public rather than the requester. Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, argued that political parties are entities comprised of individuals who represent the public and that denying the fee waiver would breed skepticism and concern about Utah government.
Romero also argued that the state had erred by indicating to the Utah Democrats that the records would cost $5,000 — which the party paid — only to add an additional $9,000 in charges when party officials arrived in May to pick up the documents. The party was given one-third of the requested documents, pending payment of the remaining fees.
"Where gaps exist, they must fall in favor of the public," Romero said of flaws in the records process.
But the committee's other Democratic member, House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, disagreed, saying that the question at hand is not whether the records serve a public interest, but whether a public interest is the primary reason for the Utah Democrats' request. He said the party had indicated that the records would be used as a basis for possible litigation and when put into context, the request represented a politically-motivated maneuver and therefore does not warrant a waiver.
"The way that this whole process has been spun by the Democratic Party is, and I hate to say this as a Democrat, disappointing and hurtful," Litvack said.
GRAMA, Utah's open records law, allows a fee to be charged and ultimately the party was not able to meet the law's standard, he said.
Thomas Wright, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, also testified before the committee. The Utah GOP made a similar, albeit smaller records request for which they paid $2,500, and which Wright acknowledged as politically motivated.
"Political parties are partisan," he said. "That's what they are. That's what we do."
Wright said the Utah GOP paid its fee for the records and said the Utah Democrats' request tied up government resources for weeks due to its size.
"They don't believe they should have to pay for sending government officials on a witch hunt," Wright said. "They're asking the public to pay for political games."
Wright also said the Utah GOP was willing to pay the balance of the Democrats' fee to release the records, provided that a Democrat representative accompany them on the day of pickup so the Republicans couldn't be accused of tampering with the documents.
Joe Hatch, an attorney representing the Utah Democratic Party, said the issue isn't the cost but the principal that the public is entitled to transparency and public records. He said neither party should have been required to pay a fee for their respective GRAMA requests.
"We have the ability to write the check," he said. "It's just that we shouldn't have to."
Hatch also assured committee members that if the documents were released, the Utah Democratic Party would not use them for litigation. Hatch repeated this statement while speaking to media representatives after the meeting, saying that if the documents revealed that inappropriate action had been taken during the redistricting process, it would be up to a third party to challenge the process in court.
"The most important part of all this is that the public be aware of the process when they go to the polls in November," he said.
Joel Campbell, an associate journalism professor at BYU and media watchdog, testified before the committee in favor of granting the fee waiver. He argued that because the requested documents deal with constitutional rights and voter district information, they carry a greater public interest than many open records requests received by the Legislature.
After the meeting, he said the committee's decision to deny the waiver has the potential to set a precedent that renders the fee waiver statute moot. Since records staff have already gathered the requested documents, third parties should be able to view them for free, Campbell said. So far, such requests have been denied.
"There's some troubling things going on here," Campbell said.
After the meeting, the Alliance for a Better Utah issued a statement condemning the committee's decision, which they said goes against the spirit and intent of Utah's constitution.
"We are extremely disappointed that the Utah Legislature has chosen to continue to breed a tone of secrecy," Maryann Martindale, the group's executive director, said. "Hiding behind statute, while placing enormous financial roadblocks in front of transparency, is not the spirit of democracy."
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company