The decision may be appealed to a Utah district court, said Matt Lyon, Democratic Party executive director.
Two interesting side-lights arose during the several-hour hearing by the Legislative Records Committee:
-- State GOP chairman Thomas Wright offered to pay the Democrats’ $10,000 GRAMA fee on two conditions: 1) that the Dems pick up the two remaining boxes of GRAMA-generated redistricting records at the same time as Wright delivers the check and 2) that within 48 hours all those documents be put up online by the Dems so all Utahns, including the skeptical media, can look at them.
-- Joe Hatch, the Utah Democratic Party’s attorney (and former party leader and Salt Lake County councilman) said that if the final two boxes of the Democrat’s GRAMA request somehow become public, the state’s minority party pledges not to sue the Legislature over the 2011 redistricting, no matter what the documents show.
Under legislative-directed GRAMA rules, any appeals to GRAMA document decisions, like whether to charge for the cost of gathering and copying the records, goes to a special four-member committee made up of the President and minority leader of the Senate and the Speaker and minority leader of the House.
In this case, these are President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville; Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo; and Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero and House Minority Leader David Litvack, both D-Salt Lake.
In the end only Romero voted to overturn the legislative staff decision to charge the State Democratic Party an extra $10,000 on its November 2011 GRAMA request on “behind the scenes” communications on redistricting.
Waddoups, Lockhart and Litvack voted to uphold their staff’s decision on the fee and, thus, if the fee isn’t paid the records won’t be made public.
Hatch and Lyon quickly jumped on the decision in addressing a gaggle of media reporters after the meeting.
“This is a horrific decision,” said Hatch, an outspoken Democrat known for his high rhetoric.
“It’s a horrendous vote,” said Lyon.
“It means citizens may never know what went on behind the scenes in the redistricting, which is surely a public interest,” said Hatch.
But in fact, it’s likely someone, somehow will come up with the $10,000 still needed before two of three boxes full of the Democrats’ GRAMA request is released.
Democrats have already paid $5,000 for the first box, which turned out to be copies of documents, maps and emails that were already public via the state’s redistricting web sight. The Democrats also asked that their $5,000 be returned since all they got were already-public documents. The committee didn’t address that issue, and it’s likely Democrats won’t be getting a refund check anytime soon.
Hatch said it’s his understanding that, in fact, the two boxes contain not only printed copies of legislative emails and other such redistricting contacts but also several CDs with all those documents on them.
“What could a CD cost, maybe 50 cents,” said Hatch after the vote. He challenged Utah media outlets to make GRAMA requests for those CDs, and once getting them to put all the documents up online.
After Wright publicly offered to pay the Democrats’ $10,000 bill, Lyon said he couldn’t yet say if his party leaders would take Utah’s majority party up on the conditional offer.
“One way or another, these documents need to become public,” said Lyon. It will be a travesty if they don’t, added Hatch.
Wright told UtahPolicy that he will only pay the $10,000 if the Democrats agree to his terms – they are present when the boxes are turned over and put the documents up online within two days.
Wright said he won’t go down to legislative offices alone, pay the $10,000 and then put the documents up on the GOP web site or turn them over to some other group (i.e. a media outlet) to be put up online.
“I won’t be going over all by myself, no,” he told UPD.
And Hatch stood by his client’s offer not to sue over redistricting no matter what the two remaining boxes of GRAMA documents show – but with the preverbal wink and a nod.
Should the two boxes turn up evidence that constitutional guarantees of fair redistricting were violated, while the Utah Democratic Party may not sue, “other entities likely would,” said Hatch.
One can’t take partisan and personal politics out of Utah’s current redistricting process – where lawmakers redraw their own state House and Senate districts and the state’s now-four U.S. House seats.
And so it only makes sense, said Wright, that a GRAMA request by either major party on redistricting is full of politics as well.
Indeed, while saying Utah’s political bickering needs to end, Wright slammed Utah Democrats in the most severe language during his testimony before the committee Monday.
In fact, while voting with the GOP leaders to deny the Democrats’ $10,000 fee waiver, Litvack said it was “laughable” that Wright spoke about high ideals by the Utah Republican Party in its own redistricting GRAMA request last year.
(The Republicans paid their own $2,400 fee and then put their documents on the party web site.)
“Your (the Republican’s GRAMA) request sought to protect your own party and caucuses; you requested only Democratic (emails and meetings). To say that your request was on behalf of the public” flies in the face of reality, said Litvack.
Still, Litvack said he had to agree with the Legislature’s own staff attorney opinion that said that key to a GRAMA fee waiver in the legislative branch of government is that the “primary benefit” must be to the public, not to the individual or group making the GRAMA request.
And, said Litvack, it is clear to him that the primary benefit of the Democrats’ request is the minority party, not the public.
Romero said that isn’t the case. He said it’s clear to him that the greater public interest is served by making public documents – whether sought by the Utah GOP or Utah Democrats – concerning redistricting last year.
A side note here on personal politics: Romero, Litvack and Waddoups are, at least for a time, ending their political careers this year. Waddoups and Litvack are retiring. Romero’s Senate term is up and instead of seeking re-election he ran for his party’s Salt Lake County mayoral nomination, losing in the Salt Lake County Democratic Party Convention.
Lockhart is seeking re-election to the House and re-election to the speakership, as well. So the votes on this sensitive issue were free for Romero, Litvack and Waddoups, they don’t face voters in November.
The three “no” votes to overturn the staff decision on making the Democrats pay $10,000 for the final two GRAMA boxes “was really a vote to support their staff,” said Hatch.
But the decision – if not challenged in court and overturned – could lead future decisions where “huge” gathering costs accumulated and assessed by the legislative staff themselves would deny Utahns basic government documents, Hatch added.
Litvack and Waddoups said, and, by her vote, Lockhart seem to feel, that it is appropriate to charge “reasonable” fees for GRAMA requests if the public is not the “primary” beneficiary of such requests.
“The broad request” by the Democrats “indicates that this is not for the public interest,” said Waddoups, but rather an attempt to get material for an anticipated lawsuit challenging the 2011 redistricting.
Litvack said both the GOP and Democrats are guilty of “fishing” expeditions for redistricting material, and it is appropriate that both parties pay the cost of such materials.
In the end, said Hatch, this is not really about money.
“We have the $10,000. But the public should not be denied access to critical, we believe, public documents” about the most basic of government decisions – who citizens get to vote for via the redistricting process.
It’s unclear what happens now.
Democrats could accept the Utah Republican Party’s offer to pay the $10,000 and put the documents up on their party web site.
Democrats could pay the $10,000 themselves and make those documents public.
Someone else could pay some amount -- $10,000 for the documents or 50 cents for the CDs – and make the documents public.
Or the documents could stay in their boxes, unseen and un-examined.
One thing is clear, Democrats one way or another will continue to make the issue one of public interest up through the election, using Monday’s 3-1 denial as campaign ammunition.
In that case, Litvack’s “no” vote is a bit of a hindrance, since he crossed party lines. Litvack said his party has been wrong in its approach on many of the redistricting GRAMA issues.
“For the public’s good, we can’t let this precedence” of the vote Monday “stand,” said Lyon. “We may have to go to court now.”
Although Hatch said: “If these documents become public, we’re through. We stop this.”