A dispute at the State Records Committee last week has environmental activists challenging a Salt Lake City policy that forbids fee-waivers for records-requests—even if they benefit the public.
It was another bruising contest between the environmental advocates of the Jordan River Restoration Network and Salt Lake City government last week when a dispute over a records-request resulted in the activists challenging once again the city’s policy that flatly denies fee waivers to all records requests as a matter of course.
“It’s one of these dirty little secrets very few people know about,” says Jeff Salt with Jordan River Restoration Network. Salt says it’s an issue that’s come up more than once since his group has filed multiple exhaustive records requests with Salt Lake City investigating the city’s internal communications, memos and deliberations on the Jordan River Sports Complex, a facility approved for construction in January of 2010 and that was approved by voters in a 2003 bond election.
In March 2010 the group, concerned about the effects of development on the river, filed a records request outlining 21 item requests with 30 sub- requests, requesting everything from emails and letters to designs, blue prints, cost projections, environmental impact studies, traffic flow reports, staff minutes and more.
Ed Rutan, the attorney for Salt Lake City, deemed the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) request a “fishing expedition.” That request eventually hooked JRRN more than 4,500 pages of documents (the group is still in 3rd District Court fighting for more documents). But the expedition also turned up something else interesting, Salt says, the discovery that as a matter of policy, Salt Lake City denies all fee-waiver requests.
It was an issue brought up at last week’s SRC meeting when Salt’s colleague Ray Wheeler (pictured) with JRRN successfully challenged a denial of a fee waiver for a separate records request to the city about the proposed sports complex.
So for a citizen-advocate, or member of the media, challenging the city on an even much more modest request, the city policy is always to make requesters pay. That’s something Salt says is a leftover policy from the previous administration that flies in the face of city and state law and principles of open government.
“In 2005 Rocky Anderson adopted a no-fee waiver policy in regards to public records requests. It’s a blanket policy that the city does not grant fee waivers to anyone—period,” Salt says. “We think it conflicts with city ordinance and state GRAMA law.”
Rutan would speak little about the policy since its fate is being weighed currently in the 3rd District Court, but believes such policies are consistent with the law. “We have a written policy that we do not waive fees,” Rutan says. “It has a practical exception if it’s just a minimal amount of money or if it would cost more to send a bill and then process payment, then we don’t do it. But for anything significant we don’t grant fee waivers.”
While the issue is still up in the air legally, Salt thinks it’s a disingenuous front the city puts on when it lists on it’s own GRAMA forms a field that asks if a requester is seeking a fee waiver and to justify the reason why. Legally, however, it may be a tough sell since the section of Utah’s state GRAMA law dealing with fee waivers--for which the city patterned it’s city code--states that a fee waiver “may” be granted under circumstances such as if the information benefits the public, or if the information is about the individual requesting the record.
The difference between “may” and “shall” might be the wording that errs in favor of the city. It’s a determination Salt worries about especially if it gives the green light to other local governments to just say “no” to free, open records. “If they prevail then all local government will adopt a similar policy,” Salt says. “And then there goes that element of GRAMA.”