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Light a candle

Published August 22, 2012 1:01 am

Make public records accessible
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Thomas Jefferson, arguing that ideas should be free to roam about the Earth, noted that he could easily ignite another person's candle with his own, and lose none of his own light in the process.

This should be the model for the storage and dissemination of public records in Utah. It should not cost the state or any individual a significant amount of money for access to all public records, at any time, for any reason.

The fact that it still makes sense to some in positions of power in Utah that it would cost some $14,000 just to pull and reproduce records associated with the last reapportionment of the state's congressional districts shows that too many state documents are seen as privileged information that can only be divulged at some absurdly high cost.

Admittedly, the Utah Democratic Party poisoned the well a bit when its leaders said that the purpose of seeking emails and other legislative communications leading up to the creation of the new congressional districts was to file a lawsuit.

Democrats later withdrew that threat, despite the fact that one need not be a devoted Democrat to see that the districts the Republican-controlled Legislature came up with appear drawn specifically to disadvantage urbanites and what passes for liberal voters in Utah. The threatened legal action still hung over the process, though, making it possible for the Legislative Records Committee to uphold its staff's ruling that the records search was not done for the benefit of the public, but only for the benefit of one political party.

That is, of course, bunk.

Nothing is more crucial to the public's faith in their government than the confidence that laws are being made in public. And few laws are more important than those that deal with the exercise of democracy itself. Records that show how the state's new congressional districts came to be can only support — or undermine — the public's faith in their own government's commitment to free and fair elections.

The paper — or, these days, email — trail that the Democrats wanted should not have cost anybody $14,000. It should have been readily available to anyone with a thumb drive and a good guess as to what key words to search for.

If the information that would lay out the drafting of the districts was not that easily found, then that's the fault of the state's information technology establishment. And that's really sad, given how wonderful that system is for so many other purposes, from registering to vote, to following the progress of legislative bills, to getting any of a number of licenses.

The existing system still makes it too easy to hide crucial information. That has to be changed.