After a year of fighting, leaders of the Utah Legislature decided Friday afternoon to post online an estimated 16,000 pages of documents that Democrats have long contended will show shenanigans with redistricting. That may make for a long weekend of reading for Democrats and others.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said because Democrats had given notice that they would sue in district court for the documents, leaders decided against spending more taxpayer money on the issue.
She said leaders always believed information in the documents is public anyway, but had not provided them to Democrats because of an argument over how much the party should pay for gathering and copying them.
Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said his party was told such work would cost an estimated $5,000. But when it went to pick them up, it was handed a bill for $14,250 instead.
Democrats were allowed to take one of three boxes of documents for their $5,000 payment, and contend they were told which box they must take — which they say had essentially useless data. They were denied access to the rest until they paid the additional $9,250.
Democrats appealed to top legislative leaders to waive those fees. That appeal was rejected on a 3-1 vote in August under the reasoning that release of the documents would primarily benefit the party — which had previously said publicly that it sought the documents for possible lawsuits to overturn redistricting plans. Democrats had argued that release of the records would primarily benefit the public.
“The taxpayers have paid for it as of now” because neither the Democrats nor anyone else “has come forward to pay that cost,” Lockhart said. She said it did not make sense to spend even more for a court fight.
“So we decided just to post it online,” she said. It is online at bit.ly/TVNbCw.
“I’m not afraid of what is in the boxes,” Lockhart said. “I have never looked through the boxes. I don’t know what’s in there,” other than maps and emails she personally provided. Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, added, “We have nothing to hide.”
Dabakis was skeptical.
“The Legislature tried its best through stalling, through charging outrageous amounts of money … to keep the public from seeing the very documents that were involved in this incredibly important redistricting,” said the Democratic chairman.
He said his party will be scrutinizing the documents for fuel to possibly sue over redistricting.
“We want to see just how many shenanigans went on behind closed doors,” Dabakis said. “It is critical that we won this battle because it’s clear now that the Republican Legislature” attempts to subvert open records laws by “but charging so much that documents are out of the hands of normal citizens.”
Waddoups said that besides concern over additional court costs, legislative leaders were also persuaded that release of the documents was in the public interest because of appeals seeking them by several news media outlets — including The Salt Lake Tribune.
So many news organizations sought it “that it became prima facie [self-evident] evidence that maybe it is in the public’s interest” to release documents, he said.
“We really do want it out there. We want to do away with the suspicion that there is something being hidden,” Waddoups said.
The documents themselves, he said, likely will show that Democrats were overreaching in criticism just “to draw attention to their party, which is verging on irrelevance at this point.”
What is in the redistricting documents
• 16,000 pages.
• Democrats sought all written communications to or from legislators on redistricting.
• GOP leaders say they have not read what is in the boxes, but expect there are numerous maps and emails.
• GOP leaders say they have nothing to hide. Democrats suspect papers may show closed-door ‘shenanigans.’
• The Legislature’s bill to Democrats included charging for 506 hours of staff time at $25 per hour and $1,600 in copy costs.