House committee says no to mandatory fee waivers for records requests

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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would modify costs associated with requesting public records did not pass committee, but supporters hope that revisions may still give it a chance to become law.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, failed to get HB242 through the House Political Subdivisions Committee Tuesday, Feb. 4, after Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, challenged key components of the bill.

“Who is going to pay for that $1,000?” Dunnigan said.

Dunnigan’s comment referred to a provision in the bill that would allow a cap on fee waivers given to records requesters by the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA.  Lawmakers passed GRAMA to allows residents to request public records from state and local government agencies.

King’s proposed changes would require government agencies to fulfill a records request without charge. Currently, agencies may grant fee waivers,  Waiving charges would only apply if the agency determines the request would primarily benefit the public and if the cost of producing a document is less than $1,000.  If a request would incur fees greater than $1,000, from that point on the person requesting the records must pay the associated fees.

Citizens use public records requests to gain information about proceedings of government, and they often serve as a medium for transparency in government affairs.

“What is to prevent somebody from farcing or dividing their requests into multiple requests?” Dunnigan said.

“I don’t know that there is an effective way,” King responded.

Dunnigan’s question was a key point in why HB242 stalled in committee. Dunnigan said waiving fees up to $1,000 “is too much.”

Linda Peterson, president of the Utah Foundation For Open Government, said, “All three groups that I represent strongly support this and urge you not to get so bogged down in the money. We deserve to know how we are governed, we deserve to know that you are doing a good job.”

Sheryl Worsley,  news director at KSL radio, said, “It’s the smaller publications when they make requests are sometimes stymied by high fees they are now being charged … there are publications being resourced out of business. The fewer voices you have re-establishing … trust in government, the worse it is for government.”

“Reasonable fees lead to reasonable requests,” said Gary Williams, city Attorney for Ogden City, in opposition of the bill.

King said, “I’m going to talk with him (Dunnigan), I’ll talk with folks at the League of Cities and Towns, I’ll talk with people at the media to come up with something that addresses the points that were raised here.”

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