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The Utah Legislature has denied The Salt Lake Tribune's open-records fee waiver request for two boxes of redistricting records originally compiled for the Utah Democratic Party but withheld pending payment of $9,250 state attorneys said was owed.
"All of the records you have requested are available for public disclosure as soon as the remainder of the fees relating to researching and classifying the records have been paid," Bryant Howe, of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, wrote to The Tribune.
He said the Legislature has the power to waive such fees. But, "In this case, I exercise my discretion to deny your request. 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."
The Tribune had requested a fee waiver, arguing the research and work of collecting and scanning copies of the documents already had been completed, and the disclosure would benefit the public because the information would be used for a news article.
Because of a dispute over the bill, the Democratic Party has yet to see about three-fourths of the documents about 12,000 of 16,000 pages prepared in response to its request seeking communications among legislators about redistricting. The party paid the Legislature the $5,000 originally estimated. But it balked when the total bill came to $14,250, and is appealing the Legislature's refusal to turn over two boxes of documents.
Chairman Jim Dabakis said the box given the party contained documents that already were public, such as final laws and maps, and contained nothing of interest.
The Legislative Records Committee consisting of the top Republican and Democrat in both the House and Senate is scheduled Monday to resume a hearing on the Democratic Party's appeal of the increased bill. The hearing had been continued when Democrats complained they had not been given enough time to prepare. Party Executive Director Matt Lyon said the party plans to bring witnesses from watchdog groups and universities to argue that releasing the documents without paying additional fees is more in the interest of the public than the party.
"Few things are of greater public interest than how districts are drawn and which elected representatives are chosen," he said. "Every vote that happens once these officials are elected depends on who votes them into office. So redistricting is the core of what is the public interest and knowing what decisions went into the process."
Eric Weeks, an attorney with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, responded by saying the question really is not about whether release is in the public interest, but , "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."
The Tribune has appealed the denial of its request.
Records denial appeals hearing
What • The Legislature's Records Committee resumes hearing on Democratic Party's appeal of a $9,250 bill for disclosure of redistricting records
When • Monday, 8 a.m.
Where • State Capitol, Room 450