Top legislative leaders voted 3-1 on Monday to deny a Utah Democratic Party request to waive $9,250 in unexpected fees before the Legislature will release documents that the party suspects will show GOP shenanigans with redistricting.
The party said it may sue in court to avoid the fees — even though the Republican Party offered Monday to pay the tab on behalf of Democrats to end the fight.
Democratic Party Executive Director Matt Lyon declined the offer.
“It’s not about the money,” Lyon said. “It’s about whether business that is done by the government and by the state Legislature is public or not. They said it is not today.”
But even one Democrat voted against his party. Retiring House Democratic leader David Litvack voted with Senate President Michael Waddoups and House Speaker Becky Lockhart, both Republicans, to require the party to pay the money. Senate Democratic leader Ross Romero opposed the fees.
Those four together form the Legislative Records Committee.
The party appealed to the committee after it had paid the $5,000 originally estimated to obtain the records. But when party officials went to pick up the records, they were told that costs for processing had grown to $14,250. Democrats were allowed to take one of three boxes of documents prepared for them, but were told which box they must take. They were denied access to the rest until all fees are paid.
Litvack said the party should pay the fees because it repeatedly said publicly that it sought documents for possible lawsuits to overturn redistricting plans. He said that made the party the primary beneficiary of release, not the public.
He also slammed both parties for playing games with the issue.
“I put a lot of responsibility on the Democratic Party,” Litvack said, “for breeding skepticism and concern by constantly implying that the Legislature — me included — implicitly or explicitly [is] trying to hide something.”
Meanwhile, Lyon called the denial “absolutely horrendous” after academics and good-government groups testified Monday that release would primarily benefit the public.
“If there is ever a case that should be given a fee waiver, this is it,” said Brigham Young University communication professor Joel Campbell, who also is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. “To receive information about our rights as voters is inalienable.”
Jennifer Pathak, with the watchdog group Represent Me Utah, said three individuals in her group sought the same records, but all were told they would need to pay high fees. She said letters told them “it was unfair that all Utah taxpayers should have the burden of paying for staff time spent responding to a records request from one Utah citizen.”
Pathak said that means no one will see the records without paying high fees, which is tantamount to denying access.
Maryann Martindale, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah, said that despite the repeal of HB477, a bill critics warned would gut Utah’s open-records laws, “a skeptic might think it lives on in spirit in the halls of the Utah Legislature.”
Joe Hatch, attorney for the Democratic Party, told the committee that his party has decided that it will not challenge redistricting plans in court. He said that announcement was an attempt to remove the argument that his party sought records only in hopes of pushing a lawsuit.
After the hearing, Hatch said his party will stick to that promise, but noted that other watchdog groups or citizens could still file such a lawsuit.
Hatch also contended that, while the fight continues, he believes state open-records laws should allow anyone besides his party to inspect the records for free, since they have already been processed and even electronically scanned.
“I would urge the media to go over and pay your 50 cents to get a CD” with those electronic records, Hatch said.
The Salt Lake Tribune attempted that and sought free access to inspect the records Monday.
Legislative General Counsel John Fellows denied the request. He said while the law allows free access to documents, it also makes that subject to paying applicable research fees. He said the Legislature contends that someone first must pay the $9,250 in processing fees owed, and then free access and copying may be allowed to all.
Legislature attorneys also previously denied a written Tribune fee waiver request for electronic copies of the records. The paper has appealed that ruling.