Lawsuit threat, media interest force lawmakers to release redistricting records
What a difference three months and the threat of a lawsuit can make.
In August, state legislators denied requests by the Utah Democratic Party and The Salt Lake Tribune for documents related to the state's controversial redistricting efforts. The Legislative Records Committee said the records couldn't be released until a $9,250 bill was paid for producing the records.
On Friday afternoon, the Legislature performed what is commonly known as a "data dump." The Legislature placed all 16,000 pages of the redistricting documents online. And lawmakers also dropped their request for money.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart cited the Democratic Party's intention to sue for the documents as a reason for the sudden about-face. She said lawmakers didn't want to spend taxpayer's money defending the case in court.
"The taxpayers have paid for it as of now," Lockhart told Tribune reporter Lee Davidson about the data.
The Legislature's redistricting blog noted that media outlets, including the Tribune, Fox13 and ABC4, also requested the documents, which suggests that there is a public interest in the records.
Funny, but when the Tribune sought the records (lawmakers exempted themselves from having appeals heard before the State Records Committee), legislative lawyers pooh-poohed the idea that the Tribune deserved a fee waiver based on public interest.
"Research for a story by the media should be paid for by the media," said Bryant Howe, an attorney with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, the Legislature's legal adviser. " A government entity should not be used as a taxpayer-funded research service for the media or any other private entity."
But under GRAMA, specifically UCA 63G-2-204(4), journalists are presumed to be acting in the public interest. And, one could argue, redrawing congressional and legislative districts is a matter of public interest, especially when there are charges of gerrymandering being raised.
Meanwhile, journalists and others are reviewing the data to see if, as the Republican-dominated Legislature claims, the records show no sign of wrongdoing in the redistricting process.