Campbell: Don't buy excuses bureaucrats give for denying records
Government officials never cease to be creative in the excuses for denying or making it difficult to obtain public records.
Based on experiences of residents and journalists, here are some of those excuses that record requestors should question or challenge:
Because you're politically motivated you are less qualified to see public records and, by the way, forget about getting a fee waiver or reduction.
This is the reason the Legislative Records Committee gave in a 3-4 vote why Utah Democrats can't obtain emails and other records related to political redistricting in the state. The Democrats are appealing the decision in court. There is no "political motivation" test in the law, and the decision clearly shows the Legislature's folly in deciding to remove records appeals from the purview of the State Records Committee. Obviously, someone at the Legislature didn't like the past decisions of the committee and wanted to give lawmakers more direct control.
It's sad that the House speaker and Senate president now sit in judgment on records appeals along with a Democratic House and Senate member. In Utah, the two Democrats on the panel face a tough political calculus: Offend the leaders of majority party caucuses and risk being marginalized even more in the Legislature.
Gadflies need not apply.
In a recent State Records Committee case, Cedar Hills leaders wrongly attempted to vilify resident Ken Cromar in filings before the records committee. Because Cromar questions authority and pesters public officials, they argued, he isn't fit to ask for any favors, particularly when it comes to record-fee waivers. It doesn't appear that records meant to attack the requestor's character had any bearing on the committee's decision. Officially, the records committee said it could not enforce a fee waiver based on the vagaries of law. However, the actions of Cedar Hills officials send the wrong message to anyone wanting to ask questions of and records from local government.
Sorry, our proprietary software won't let us show you that.
Recently, Donald W. Meyers, with The Salt Lake Tribune's Utahsright.com, was told that because data was stored with proprietary software at a third-party vendor that government officials couldn't release the data. In some states, records laws specifically prohibit using software that precludes public access. Other states also prohibit third-party vendors from contracting to store and charge to access public information. Utah should consider such amendments to GRAMA.
Sorry, there's private and public data mixed in those records.
Public information must be segregated from "private," "protected" and "controlled" information under Utah law. Records requestors should challenge attempts to charge for such segregation. Record keepers should have already thought about that when creating records and storage databases. Again, many states require record keepers to consider how a database or other records can remain publicly accessible. Utah law needs a tweak on this point, too.
We can't provide that to you electronically.
Summit County won't cough up its restaurant inspection reports in an electronic form after Meyers asked for them. Instead, Summit County has given The Tribune a stack of all restaurant reports measuring about three inches high. In turn, The Tribune has asked some college students to type the data into an electronic database. It may be some time before diners in Summit County know whether their favorite restaurant has been cited for health code violations.
Joel Campbell writes about First Amendment and open government issues for The Tribune. He is an associate journalism professor at BYU. He does not speak for the university. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.