Utah Dems should be ashamed

2012-11-18T00:15:00Z 2012-11-18T00:20:23Z Utah Dems should be ashamed Daily Herald
November 18, 2012 12:15 am

The Utah Democratic Party's foolish crowing over Friday's release by the Utah Legislature of documents relating to the 2011 redistricting process -- as if this is a great victory for the public and, in the words of state Democratic chairman Jim Dabakis, "a defeat for closed government" -- is a public disgrace.

Dems have tried breathlessly for a year to make a case that gerrymandering occurred in the drawing new voting district lines to favor Republican candidates. But there was no hard evidence for this -- zero.

And so they went fishing.

The Democratic Party made a gargantuan open records request under GRAMA, Utah's government records access and management act. The request consumed immense amounts of legislative staff time as the party sought any record having to do with decision making on district boundaries. This would include all e-mail correspondence and attachments to or from any member of the legislature since discussions began.

This is no small challenge. After collection (a daunting task in itself), each document and attachment must be reviewed by legal counsel to ensure that protected or private information is not released.

Since GRAMA allows government to recover reasonable fees for voluminous requests, the Democrats were initially given an estimate (not a final quote) of $5,000. That amount was paid in advance, and research began.

But the sheer volume of documents turned out to be greater than expected, and the $5,000 originally estimated was insufficient to cover the cost. It ended up costing another $9,250 to fulfill the GRAMA request -- which took up three cardboard boxes.

Democrats were allowed to pick up one of the boxes for their $5,000, but when they were told they had to pay another $9,250 before getting the other two, they threw a fit and started claiming that their entire GRAMA request was in the public interest and all fees should be waived.

Translation: Let taxpayers foot the bill for our political games.

GRAMA wisely allows for fees to be waived when a records request is legitimately in the public interest. But this request by the Democrats served only party interests -- to help it gear up for a quixotic lawsuit to overturn the legislature's mapping decisions.

Had there been some concrete evidence supporting a claim of gerrymandering, it might -- might -- be a different story. But even then, legal experts say, you can't reverse redistricting decisions in court. Legislators are empowered to do as they will with voting districts, fair or not.

The Democrats' lamest moment of the whole GRAMA affair came after the Republican Party offered to pay the $9,250 fee as a gift on behalf of their colleagues across the aisle. The Democrats refused. They evidently thought they could make more political hay by going to court with a lawsuit to get the records for free -- and they filed one in September.

None of this is rocket science. Democrats didn't want to pay because Door No. 3 might be the booby prize. "The truth is we don't know what's in there," Dabakis told the Herald in August. "Maybe there won't be anything there. Maybe we'll find something."

With that kind of uncertainty, we wouldn't want to pay nearly 10 grand either. The joke is that -- as we now know -- there is in fact nothing. And legislative Republicans must have known that all along. This joke is on the Democrats.

Now that the other two boxes have been released to the media, the whole issue is moot. The records boxes might as well be given to somebody rather than be sent to the trash bin; the work had been done and there's no use utterly wasting it.

But the Utah Democratic Party ought to be ashamed of itself. The taxpayers just ate $9,250 because the party acted in bad faith.

For anyone who might think that Republicans get a better deal, note that the Utah GOP also requested documents about redistricting. Their request was smaller and cost somewhere north of $2,000. They didn't whine that the fee should be waived in the public interest.

Republican executive director Ivan DuBois testified to the legislative records committee that Republicans acted responsibly in their request and that the Democrats acted improperly by making a large request and then refusing to pay.

We agree. GRAMA is a wonderful law, but as with many laws it seeks a balance. While it would be nice if every document produced by government were made instantly available to the public, that capability is not in place today, and large requests are costly.

If every request for a voluminous pile of government documents had to be honored free of charge, regardless of the motives of the requestor, the cost to taxpayers would be substantial. Fees for fishing expeditions that are not clearly in the public interest are therefore appropriate.

"It's a good day," Dabakis exulted Friday about the release of the documents, "not just for the Democrats, who have fought long and hard for this outcome, but for Utahns everywhere."


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