Amid concerns that state agencies may sometimes use high fees as a back-door way to deny open-records requests, a lawmaker is trying to force agencies to provide for free any documents whose release is deemed to be in the public interest.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, introduced HB122 on Thursday to change current law, which merely encourages agencies to provide documents for free. The proposal would require free records when their disclosure would be more in the public interest than personal interest.
That comes after Democrats last year had a long, high-profile fight with legislative leaders over release of 16,000 pages of documents dealing with redistricting. The party was originally told that would cost $5,000, then was charged $14,250 instead — and the Legislature initially would not turn over two of three boxes of documents until all fees were paid.
After a year of fighting, the Legislature finally posted all those documents online — after Democrats filed a lawsuit. GOP leaders said they hoped that would end the lawsuit, but it is still pending as Democrats seek a return of the $5,000 they paid plus attorney’s fees.
King said he introduced his bill not just because of that fight, but to help increase appropriate access to public records.
“Despite the language in the statute [the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA] saying agencies are encouraged to waive the fees, they often said, ‘It’s still within our discretion, so we’re not going to do it,’ ” King said.
“Public access to information shapes our democracy and is the lifeblood of good public policy. If we are undermining access, we are undermining democracy,” King said. He said he expects a tough fight for the bill, especially because it could increase costs during tight economic times.