This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In January 2009, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker's office invited the news media to a news conference to ballyhoo the city's Transparency Initiative. The city would become a model of openness among Utah's cities and towns, leaders predicted.
Fast forward to this week, conservationists called Becker's transparency initiative a "sham" as they battle for records and information in a debate over the city's plan to build a soccer complex along the Jordan River. The plaintiffs argue the 16-field complex near 2200 North will irreparably harm the flood plain. It seems at City Hall that platitudes on paper have come in conflict with practice.
Jeff Salt, leader of the Jordan River Restoration Network (JRNN), said Monday, "Transparency has fallen flat on its face if this is any indication of the rest of city government."
Salt and former City Council member Nancy Saxton noted delays in obtaining records and said they still haven't received all records that apply to their case. So far, they say public records have helped reveal uneven application of zoning ordinances. Real Salt Lake and a city spokesperson have disputed such claims.
It would be unfair to not acknowledge the strides Salt Lake City has made toward more participatory and open government. However, this case places in question the city's transparency record. Particularly troubling is the city attorney's assertion that the city is exempt from a key provision of Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). The provision allows records requesters "acting in the public interest" to seek a fee waiver. In a policy dating back to 2005, the city asserts it is not obligated to give fee waivers.
Karthik Nadesan, JRRN's attorney, said, "My interpretation is that while the city has discretion to deny a fee waiver, it cannot flatly deny all waivers."
Nadesan is right. If Utah's capital city can get away with avoiding fee waivers and convince a judge to support that position, Salt Lake's "transparency model" is apt to be a bad excuse for other government entities. If state and local government entities were to follow Salt Lake's example, GRAMA's fee waiver language becomes meaningless. It's a wrong-headed policy officials should abandon.
Salt Lake officials point to a Utah Court of Appeals ruling that protects governments against unreasonable GRAMA requests. Karen Hale, the city's communications director, says JRRN's request was too broad, and she points out that the city has provided JRRN with thousands of pages of documents without charge.
The city's fee waiver policy came to light as the JRNN fought to get public records to build its case to stop the construction of a soccer complex. Ironically, the policy was not well understood, even by the city's own records appeals board, which ordered the city release records and provide a fee waiver. What happened next left many scratching their heads. The city appealed its own records committee decision to the state Records Committee.
In the appeal, the city attorney argued that the city's records board had no right to grant the fee waiver. So confused by the fact a city's board and its own attorney were at odds, state Records Committee members consulted the law and held that the city could not appeal the decision of its own board.
The JRNN records request, now in court, is only a subplot in the network's larger battle seeking to keep the city from moving ahead with the soccer complex project. Wednesday, a judge denied the group's request for a temporary restraining order to stall the project.
While there may be disagreement about whether the soccer complex should be built, there should be no disagreement about the public interest in records and the justification for a public-interest fee waiver, albeit a partial one. To be sure, if Salt Lake City officials really believe in transparency, they will match their actions with their words.
Joel Campbell is an associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. His reporting does not necessarily reflect the views of BYU. He can be reached at email@example.com or @joelcampbell on Twitter. He also was an unpaid consultant for Salt Lake City's transparency initiative.