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Campbell: Cedar Hills case shows scars of fight for open government

Published September 28, 2012 11:17 pm

Activist says it's been "hell on earth."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On paper, Utah's records law looks pretty straightforward, but in practice some records requests in small Utah towns can lead to deep fissures with personal attacks and legal maneuvering.

Take the recent case involving a citizen request for email records between a former mayor and city manager and members of the Cedar Hills City Council. The lesson from the contentious case should be that both government and citizens involved in the Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) process need to practice more cooperation and a lot less political posturing and personal attacks. The public's right to know deserves better.

Ken Cromar represents Cedar Hills Citizens for Responsible Government. Cromar could be straight out of central casting, as he has taken on the role of the crusading everyman. He and his group believe there is something rotten at City Hall. There's good reason to suspect something's fishy. While the former mayor was cleared in a city audit, he admitted to financial wrongdoing in his personal business. In addition, questions about the financial health of a controversial golf course and clubhouse come up frequently in conversations.

While city leaders deny anything is wrong at city hall or with the golf course, some still see a black cloud. The city's reaction to this GRAMA request has only fueled more suspicions.

Cromar claims city leaders have stalled him at every step to get at important public information and have wrongly denied him fee waivers for the records. His six-month battle ended recently at the State Records Committee, which got him the records he sought but not a refund of the $700 he had spent for expenses related to "searching and compiling" official emails.

At the same time, other GRAMA requests go unanswered because Cromar has not paid a so-called "down payment" for records research, City Attorney Eric Johnson said.

City leaders say his insistence on fee waivers and other privileges to hunt for information shouldn't be borne by taxpayers. They say they have gotten plenty of phone calls from people telling them not to give Cromar any special treatment, so they won't.

"We have nothing to hide," said council member Jenney Rees, who said the City Council would be glad to examine any evidence of wrongdoing the citizens group may find, but the council isn't willing to fund such an investigation.

Johnson said that the city acted promptly on Cromar's request — the largest in the history of this city of nearly 10,000 residents. It takes time to redact confidential information from emails.

However, officials do agree that part of the delay came from a disagreement about whether the city could legally require City Council members to divulge emails about city-related business from their private accounts. While Cromar cried foul, city officials said they wanted a legal authority to settle the uncertainty.

So on Cromar's first appeal to the State Records Committee in June, committee members told the city to obtain emails on private accounts that contained city business. Rees said that as a result of this case, appointed and elected officials discuss city business on email accounts stored on the city's computer servers.

The battle has put Cedar Hills officials on the defensive. Many residents have taken sides. The City Council issued a 2,000-word statement before the records committee case countering charges from the citizens group.

"It is unfortunate that Mr. Cromar and others continue to knowingly make false statements with the intent to mislead the citizens of Cedar Hills. However, the city will continue to work diligently to fulfill this request as additional records come in. Staff and officials are committed to transparency and honest government and have demonstrated this time and time again."

For Cromar, fighting city hall has taken a personal toll.

"The city has made it a hell on earth for me and my friends, just because we're trying to gain access to the truth," he said.

Joel Campbell is an associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University. He does not speak for the university. He writes a column about First Amendment and open government issues for The Tribune. He can be contacted at foiguy@gmail.com.