A 3rd District Court judge’s ruling in an open-records case does more than force the Utah Legislature pay $15,000 in attorney’s fees.
Judge L.A. Dever’s April 30 ruling on behalf of the Utah Democratic Party affirms that government agencies should waive fees when a records request benefits the general public. Dever rejected the Legislature’s attempt to charge the Democrats almost $15,000 for copies of correspondence and other documents related to the redistricting effort.
“I’ve always maintained if there were a case that qualified for public interest, this was it,” said Joel Campbell, an associate professor of journalism at Brigham Young University.
The party sought the documents to find evidence of Republican skulduggery in the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional and legislative district boundaries. Initially, the Democrats agreed to pay $5,000, but lawmakers increased the fee, and only allowed them to take one of three boxes of documents unless additional money was paid.
Eventually, after The Salt Lake Tribune and other media outlets sought to obtain the records, lawmakers posted them online for no cost.
Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act states that government agencies may waive fees if releasing documents would benefit the public rather than an individual. However, the fee waiver is strictly discretionary.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, attempted to remove that discretion from the law with a bill that would have required fee waivers if the public-interest test was met. That bill was sent to interim study after the Utah League of Cities and Towns claimed it would be financially ruinous to cities to offer free records.
Even though district court decisions are not considered decisions of record, Campbell believes it will establish a precedent for demanding fee waivers in cases where a documents are sought for a public benefit.