Joel Campbell: Legislative attorneys bring back the ghost of HB477
Legislative attorneys are playing games when it comes to waiving fees for the release of redistricting records in a case that has wide public interest. Their actions show that within the halls of the state Capitol the spirit of HB477, discredited two years ago, lives on.
This week, attorneys told The Salt Lake Tribune that the news media should pay its fair share to get copies of redistricting records. Originally, Utah Democrats had requested records and received a box after paying $5,000 and then the price tag for the records went up to $14,000. Without payment, the records remain in two boxes, out of the public view.
The box Democrats got was full of records already publicly available, such as public comments, redistricting maps and the final laws. The Tribune requested the remainder of the records, citing a section of Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), which allows the government to waive fees if requesters can show the requests benefit the public interest. There's no question that this request benefits the public.
Because the language for fee waivers is discretionary, legislative attorneys are still clinging to one of the arguments behind the failed HB477 ÂÂ there is no free lunch for records requesters even when the request may help citizens oversee their government.
Eric Weeks, an attorney with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, told The Tribune, "When there is a significant cost to taxpayer funds involved in a request, our policy is to charge a fee for that regardless whether there's a public interest test or not."
So if a case involving the basic right of representation and voting doesn't meet the standard for a public interest fee waiver, what case would? The logical end of legislative attorneys' arguments is to dismantle the fee waiver provision altogether.
Here's a central question for the legislative panel, which will hear the Democrats' appeal on Monday morning: Do taxpayers have a right to know how their dollars were spent by lawmakers in secret caucuses and behind-the-scenes negotiations to create new legislative boundaries?
The other question is whether government has any role in providing information to its citizens without cost or at reduced cost? Some argue any and all costs associated with providing citizens a view of their government should be borne by citizen requesters. Of course, they become particularly outraged if journalists ask for a fee waiver.
They say journalists abuse fee waivers and cost taxpayers money for "fishing expeditions."
There is good reason why the nation's framers added freedom of the press to the Bill of Rights. It's because the media in colonial times and now act as a watchdog of government. Conveniently, legislative attorneys want to ignore the language in GRAMA, which says the reporters working on a story for print or broadcast are considered to be acting in the public interest. If indeed they believe a reporter's request is frivolous, then charge for it.
However, asking for records about redistricting is not a frivolous fishing expedition. It's about basic voting rights and representation.
Bryant Howe, of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, wrote to The Tribune, "Research for a story by the media should be paid for by the media. A government entity should not be used as a taxpayer-funded research service for the media or any other private entity."
Contrast that with the transparency culture of enlightened states and countries, where public officials recognize that part of the government's role is to provide access to information.
Even the federal government provides some documents for free to public interest requesters. In many places, part of the government budget is dedicated to funding a system to help requesters, including the news media, to obtain information. Even in Utah, taxpayers foot the bill for a website that makes state and local government budget data available.
Utah lawmakers might be shocked to find out that in many states and the United Kingdom, for example, the government has an agency to help citizens and the media get information and watchdog government.
In fact, the oldest Freedom of Information law in the world, Sweden's Freedom of the Press Act from 1766, was built on the premise that the press was a vital part of democracy, and citizens and the press should have access to government records.
Legislative attorneys are ignoring this important and proper role of government. It's too bad that the requester-pay-all mentality behind HB477 did not also die at the same time the ill-conceived law did two years ago.
Joel Campbell writes about open government and First Amendment issues for The Tribune. He is an associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.