Utah lawmakers could make it costlier for ‘vexatious requesters’ to get public records

One legislator wonders if news organizations could be labeled ‘vexatious’ for its GRAMA requests.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Lawmakers in the House Chamber during a special legislative session, at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

A proposal aimed at discouraging “vexatious” public records requests is winding its way through the state Legislature — and has already prompted one lawmaker to ask if The Salt Lake Tribune could be considered an offender.

Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, said his bill doesn’t label anyone “vexatious” and argues the proposal is meant to help county clerks who are flooded with GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) requests from a single person or group.

However, the Utah Media Coalition is pushing back on the bill, HB96, out of concern that it will have a broad “chilling effect” on records requests instead of targeting the handful of people who are abusing the system.

“We would rather address these very specific requesters,” said Renae Cowley Laub, representing the Utah Media Coalition.

Government agencies are allowed to charge a fee for responding to a public information request, but under current law, they must waive it for the first 15 minutes of work.

Under Johnson’s bill, someone who submits multiple GRAMAs within a 10-day period would only get a fee waiver for the first of those requests but would have to pay the full staff time for responding to the others.

With one waiver granted per 10 days under the bill, a requester could get up to 36 waivers each year, according to Jess Bradfield, Cache County clerk and auditor and a representative of the Utah Association of County Clerks.

The Utah Association of Counties and Utah Association of County Clerks are both backing the legislation, he said during a recent legislative committee hearing.

Bradfield said the goal is to limit the number of “vexatious and serial” requests that bog down agencies, making them slower when processing GRAMAs from news organizations or others who are genuinely seeking information.

“We want those legitimate requests that will benefit the public to be placed first and foremost at the top of the queue,” he said. “And limit the number of vexatious requests coming through the queue so that those legitimate requests cannot be answered in a timely manner.”

Those who abuse the system submit a barrage of requests with the express intent of overwhelming a government agency, Bradfield said, adding that a single person is responsible for about 40% of the GRAMAs that his office has received in the past 10 months.

However, Cowley Laub said the Utah Media Coalition would prefer an alternative approach to dealing with these situations, suggesting that agencies could instead designate as “vexatious requesters” individuals or groups intentionally trying to disrupt government operations. Officials could then limit the number of GRAMA requests those individuals could file in a certain period, she said.

Rep. Norm Thurston asked if a media outlet could get this designation, and Cowley Laub said it could.

“I’m intrigued because I would love to label The Salt Lake Tribune as a vexatious requester,” Thurston, R-Provo, said. “If you want to go down that path, let us know because we may have a substitute bill coming.”

Thurston indicated Thursday through a House spokeswoman that he was not available for an interview about his comments.

He argued during the recent committee hearing, however, that he regarded Cowley Laub’s suggestion as a more “draconian” approach and that eliminating fee waivers for serial requesters would be a less heavy-handed solution.

Rep. Phil Lyman said he’s noticed an “antagonism” building up between government entities and people who are asking for information and that he wasn’t sure the bill would improve these relationships.

“People have a right, I guess, to frustrate government,” said Lyman, R-Blanding, who ultimately voted against HB96. “Government shouldn’t have a right to frustrate people.”

The bill has cleared the House and will go to the Senate for consideration.

This isn’t the only piece of legislation this session that has raised concerns about press access. Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, has introduced a resolution that would limit media access on the Senate floor and require reporters to get permission from a “media designee” to enter a nonpublic area of the chamber for interviews.

That resolution is slated for a hearing in the Senate Business and Labor Committee.