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Corporations are people — cities, too

First Published      Last Updated Oct 16 2014 01:45 pm

When Mitt Romney told an Iowa State fairgoer in 2011 that "Corporations are people, my friend," it caused a stir on the presidential campaign trail.

Some members of the audience shouted out their disagreement, a few began to chant "Wall Street greed!" and the Democratic National Committee fired off a news release denouncing the statement as a "shocking admission" by Romney, who was trying hard to shake the persona of an out-of-touch business executive.

It was a different story Thursday in the Salt Lake City hearing room of the state Records Committee, where South Jordan City argued that it could keep a document under wraps, at least in part, because the city enjoyed the same legal status as a person.



No one contested the point.

Even an attorney representing a grass-roots group trying to pry open the confidential "draft document" conceded that part of the city's claim.

"I know the city has relied on the idea that a city can be considered a person and we don't dispute that," said Jon Call, attorney for residents seeking to block potential development of the Mulligans Golf and Games resort.

Members of the Records Committee didn't disagree either — for good reason.

Utah's open-records law, the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), specifically defines "person" as an individual, a corporation or any other type of business organization.

That's not the only state law using that classification.

A corporation, association, business trust or other organization is defined as a person in Utah Code dealing with commerce and trade.

The same appears in the section concerning public utilities.

South Jordan cited Utah's GRAMA law in advancing its city-as-a-person argument because, like most cities, it's organized as a municipal corporation.

South Jordan attorneys also brought up Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United v. FEC and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores to bolster their case, citing those decisions as recognitions of a corporation's constitutional rights of free speech (with the ability to make unlimited independent expenditures on political campaigns) and religious liberty (with the right not to have to provide contraceptive insurance to employees).

Verne Cotton, a local organizer in the Move to Amendment effort pushing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, expressed disgust at the state of the law.

"Atrocious," he said when asked about the South Jordan argument and the business-friendly definition of personhood in Utah Code. He said this "legal fiction" is allowing "corporations to hide behind the Constitution."

He pointed to last year's nonbinding survey in Salt Lake City where 88 percent of voters agreed with the premise that corporations are not people and money is not speech.

Back in the state Records Committee hearing, South Jordan tried to cross a bridge too far when it pressed the city's legal status as a "person" to argue that a draft report on the finances of Mulligans Golf was confidential because it was created for the "personal use" of an individual — namely, South Jordan City.

"The city is not an individual," countered committee member Patricia Smith-Mansfield. "GRAMA does define 'individual' as a human being, not a corporation. … There's a difference between a person and an individual."

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AT A GLANCE

Save Mulligans vs. South Jordan City

South Jordan residents trying to block possible residential and commercial development of Mulligans Golf and Games lost their fight Thursday to get a draft report on the golf course finances. “This wasn’t a good decision for the public,” said organizer Julie Holbrook. “Now the cities have a different way of hiding their information.”

City officials said all the data in the incomplete and “confusing” draft are available from public sources. They fought to keep the draft report confidential primarily out of fear of setting a precedent that could spur an expensive and time-consuming flood of records requests, said Ryan Loose, assistant city attorney.


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