Last Sunday The Salt Lake Tribune published a story that was 18 months in the making. The reporting and writing didn't take that long. It was just that The Tribune had to fight through a lawsuit the Utah Transit Authority filed to keep its public information from the public.
Sunday's story was an analysis of crime statistics in and around UTA's train lines, bus routes and stations. While it pointed out a few problem spots, the article did not expose any major wrongdoing. In fact, one has to wonder why UTA fought so hard to keep a lid on it.
And fight it did. The lawsuit UTA filed came after it lost its case before the State Records Committee a year ago. And that loss came after a UTA attorney had requested legal sanctions against a Tribune reporter for allegedly threatening harm to a public servant, a claim so preposterous that UTA later rescinded it.
Through it all, UTA insisted it is not opposed to public scrutiny, and it put much of the blame on a vendor it uses to store its data. That vendor, UTA said, could not produce the information the Tribune requested without a $5,000 to $10,000 cost that UTA argued should be passed on to any member of the public who requested it.
The records committee didn't buy that, saying UTA has a public responsibility to provide the records at a reasonable cost.
So what did UTA do? It sued the records committee, which in turn forced The Tribune to fight the lawsuit if it was to obtain the public information. Instead of acknowledging its vendor issues are not the public's problem and covering the cost, UTA invested untold thousands in legal work to keep its crime data buried.
The ultimate irony is that, once The Tribune had completed its mapping and analysis of UTA's crime data, UTA requested the data from The Tribune because it hadn't done any similar analysis. In other words, the data analysis UTA fought so hard to avoid was now offering something useful.
UTA indeed may have entered into a bad contract, but in no way does that excuse its obstructionist behavior through this process. In the age of increasing data access and analysis, government agencies must embrace transparency to remain credible in taxpayers' eyes. Utah's largest and most important transit agency needs to figure that one out.