Thanks for the tantrum

2012-08-22T00:03:34Z Thanks for the tantrum Daily Herald
August 22, 2012 12:03 am

The Utah Democratic Party's shameless refusal to pay the cost of its massive open records request for legislative e-mails on redistricting should put the party on some sort of state blacklist.

If a blacklist doesn't exist, start one now. Require payment in advance from now on.

At issue is $14,200 -- the cost of having state employees collect and copy thousands of emails that the Democrats breathlessly suggested could contain evidence of illegal Republican shenanigans and gerrymandering in the process of creating new political districts after the 2010 Census.

The Dems thought they were entitled to a waiver of the fee because a review of these documents would serve the public interest. Never mind that it didn't, which is why their waiver request was repeatedly rebuffed.

Under GRAMA, Utah's open records law, any member of the public (or even a political party) can get a copy of virtually anything that's a legitimate public record so long as the record is not protected for some lawful reason. But that doesn't mean it has to be free.

When a request is very specific -- let's say a request for "any e-mail correspondence between the Speaker of the House and the Senate President between Aug. 1 and Aug. 10" -- the request can be easily fulfilled, and there should be no charge. It will yield only a handful of documents.

On the other hand, fishing expeditions with broad criteria -- such as "every email that contains the word 'redistricting' -- as the Democrats submitted, will result in a large number of documents. In this case it turned out to be in the neighborhood of 16,000 pages. Legislative staff had to go through every available email, including attachments, for 104 senators and representatives and their staffs.

The bill was itemized as follows: $25 per hour for 506 hours totaling $12,650. Add another $1,600 in copying costs at 10 cents per page and you've got a hefty bill.

Having launched this time-waster with its GRAMA request, the Democrats agreed to pay the original estimate of $5,000. But in the end that only covered part of the cost. But since the party did pay something, the legislature's lawyers released one of three total boxes of documents. The other two boxes are being withheld pending payment of the balance of $9,250.

Whining mightily after discovering that Box No. 1 was useless -- meaning there was nothing incriminating to use against the Republicans -- the Democrats again demanded a fee waiver and the release of the other two boxes.

It's a pretty good assumption that the remaining boxes are ringers as well. That would explain why the Democrats refused the Republican Party's offer on Monday to  pay the $9,250 fee for them. No, said the Dems, it's got to be free or nothing.

And so the State of Utah is left holding the bag. There was a lot of staff time devoted to this wild goose chase, but there will be no payment.

Some advocates for open records have argued that this is a classic case where a fee waiver would be appropriate. We disagree. Voluminous requests -- especially requests for everything but the kitchen sink -- should come at a cost to the requester unless they can be clearly shown to be in the public interest. Otherwise there will be no end to politically motivated intrusions on government resources.

Even the leading House Democrat who sits on the four-member Legislative Records Committee, Rep. David Litvack of Salt Lake City, agreed and voted with Senate President Michael Waddoups and House Speaker Becky Lockhart, both Republicans, to require the fee. Only Democrat Ross Romero dissented.

This is not to say that $25 per hour is reasonable. You could hire someone at minimum wage to collect documents. The state should charge only the actual cost for GRAMA requests, and it should make an effort to keep that cost as low as possible.

In the end, however, this ridiculous charade by the Democrats may lead to more efficient ways to handle public records requests, save taxpayer dollars and improve openness.

A germ of what appears to be a good idea is being developed by Sen. Curt Bramble of Provo. He is considering whether a great many emails -- documents that obviously deal with the public's business and which contain no private or protected information -- could not be automatically forwarded to a searchable online state database. Any member of the public could search at will without a GRAMA request.

If a GRAMA request is then submitted for other documents not already posted online, the normal search process would ensue but with a vastly smaller set of documents. This could save immense amounts of staff time while continuing to protect any documents that require individual treatment, such as the redaction of private information.

Do we owe a "thank you" to the Utah Democratic Party for its showboating attempt to dredge up nonexistent dirt on the redistricting process and subsequent public tantrum? Perhaps so.

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