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Utah's Right to Know
Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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Utah State Records Committee orders UTA to open crime database for newspaper

After six months of hearing "no", Janelle Stecklein finally got a "yes" in her quest for crime records on the state’s bus and train system.

The State Records Committee voted 3-2 Thursday to order the Utah Transit Authority to provide Stecklein, a reporter on The Salt Lake Tribune’s Justice desk, with access to its crime statistics. The Tribune sought the data as part of an ongoing project looking at crime trends in the Salt Lake Valley.

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UTA had held back on the request, arguing that it did not have access to the data, which are maintained by FATPOT, a contractor that maintains databases for the UTA’s police force, the Utah Highway Patrol and other Utah police departments.

Capt. Jason Petersen, with UTA’s police, said FATPOT informed him that retrieving the data Stecklein wanted would cost between $5,000-$10,000.

Stecklein noted that the most the paper had to pay was $77.50 for two of the criminal databases it requested from other cities, and a dozen police agencies handed over the data at no cost.

Petersen also piled blame on FATPOT, claiming the contractor failed to deliver on its promises that the transit police would be able to do statistical analysis with the software.

Tony Semerad, the paper’s computer-assisted reporting editor, noted that many of the agencies that provided data with no problem were FATPOT customers.

During a pre-hearing in October, the UTA offered to have Semerad examine the database. Petersen said that offer was withdrawn because it would mean allowing a civilian to see crime records, a violation of state law.

However, Petersen didn’t explain how FATPOT, a private contractor, could then have access to the crime reports.

The records committee didn’t buy the authority’s arguments for denying the Tribune’s requests, despite UTA’s claims that the quibble was about money, not access.

"There has been an effective denial of access," Committee Chairwoman Betsy Ross said.

She also quickly rejected a suggestion from attorney David Mull, who represented the UTA at the hearing, that the committee subpoena FATPOT for an explanation of its practices. Ross said that was UTA’s responsibility, not the committee’s.

Seeing the direction the committee was headed, the UTA staffers made a final offer at the meeting: It would create a spreadsheet with the requested data, but it would cost about $2,500 for an employee to compile it and make sure it didn’t contain any inappropriate information.

In the end, the committee voted to require UTA provide access. The UTA has 30 days to appeal the ruling.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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