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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Protesters demonstrate outside of the Grand America Hotel during the the ALEC Convention on Thursday, July 26, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
They shouldn't be able to meet behind closed doors to discuss laws that influence our communities. —Richard Lafon

SALT LAKE CITY — At least one man was arrested Thursday while trying to enter the Grand America Hotel during the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Richard Lafon was part of a group that had assembled to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the sentencing of federal lands bid-rigger Tim DeChristopher.

DeChristopher, who was convicted of making false bids on Utah lands to prevent the occupation of oil companies, remains in prison in Colorado, but his friends and supporters in Utah continued fighting for a common cause.

"We wanted to go in and register just like anyone else," said Lafon, who was cited for trespassing and not allowed into the function, which required a nonmember, on-site registration fee of $1,350.

"They shouldn't be able to meet behind closed doors to discuss laws that influence our communities," he said.

The protestors, made up of environmental activists associated with Peaceful Uprising, took issue with this week's ALEC convention. The goal was to "create tension" for those in attendance, as well as promote public awareness of their campaign for "a real democracy," said 25-year-old Jake Hanson, who held a reclaimed conservative political campaign sign that was painted to read, "ALEC pimps lawmakers to corporations."

"This is a great example of fascism," Hanson said. "ALEC is essentially a merger of state and corporations."

Lawmakers and ALEC members from various states, including Utah, walked through the protesters to leave the function Thursday. Only a few engaged in conversation with the crowd of about three dozen.

Nick Dranias, director of the center for constitutional government at the conservative think-tank Goldwater Institute, tried to alleviate the group's fears, saying ALEC may have fostered some bad ideas in the past, but has also helped pass good legislation as a result of "healthy and productive debate."

Dranias said state-initiated balanced budget discussions were at the forefront in ALEC meetings Thursday.

"We are just one more voice at the Legislature, along with every other group with their own ideas," he said. "ALEC is based on democratic Jeffersonian ideals, fostering a belief that government shouldn't do too much."

Local Peaceful Uprising organizer Henia Belalia said ALEC "shouldn't exist" and that the only agreement the group would reach with Dranias would be "when he left ALEC."

"Legislation should reflect the people's will and well-being and not protect corporations," Belalia said.

Dranias said he only engaged the group to "disrupt their world view," adding that the protesters were fighting a freedom — peaceful and private assembly — that they should be proud of and uphold.

Thursday's protest was one of several held during ALEC's annual four-day meeting, purporting that corporations have undue control over state lawmakers.

"There is nothing mysterious about ALEC," Dranias said. "It is not about monolithic legislation. There are lots of good ideas that get passed that even (these protesters) would like."

Wednesday, Gov. Gary Herbert said ALEC's focus on advancing free markets, limited government and federalism is something the state of Utah supports and exemplifies. Herbert asked for ALEC support to regain control of public lands.