Utah cities say those who mine public records for data should pay more

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Lawmakers file into the House of Representatives in the Utah State Capitol. Excessive public records requests have the Utah League of Cities and Towns concerned with the scope, volume and frequency of such requests. (Dani Jardine)

SALT LAKE CITY — Officials from the Utah League of Cities and Towns say that the state’s public records law needs to be amended to require “frequent requesters” and commercial users to pay more for requests because large record requests strain local budgets.

“The city is doing research for commercial benefits at taxpayers’ expense,” Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, told a legislative committee on Oct. 16.

Utah’s public records law, known as GRAMA, outlines who has access to records and how the law is enforced. The statute aims to balance a citizen’s right to access government records with individuals’ constitutional rights of privacy when the government gathers personal data.

Generally, the law only requires requesters to pay for charges of making copies of records and also allows fee waivers for those acting in the public interest. Who is eligible for waivers is decided by the government entity fulfilling a records request and can vary according to the county and state.

City officials want lawmakers to make a distinction in rates for those who gather the data and then resell it or repurpose it for profit. Opponents argue this opens the door for the government to decide who does and who doesn’t receive favored treatment under the law. Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation of Open Government, believes that favoritism will be hard to avoid.

“If it’s purely a commercial need, it should get less priority in terms of getting free records. The public interest or public impact should always be given the higher priority,” Petersen said.

As large requests for public records can strain government entities, Diehl said he believes that there are two issues the public and lawmakers need to be aware of.

“The two main topics of concern are excessive GRAMA requests and the concept of data mining,” Diehl said.

During the Legislature’s Government Operations Interim Committee meeting, Diehl explained that the term “excessive GRAMA requests” is not defined in state law. Because of this, Diehl proposed adding legislation that addresses the scope, volume and frequency of GRAMA requests.

Diehl said this has become an issue since the number of GRAMA requests began to increase around the state. For example, an individual in Stockton, a town near Tooele with less than 1,000 people, asked for all zoning ordinances from 1900 to the present day, forcing town officials to spend tax dollars to respond to the records request.

The exact number of tax dollars spent on excessive GRAMA requests cannot be clearly determined because the total cost depends on the scope of requests and who is included in the request. All requests and costs vary by scope and request of the jurisdiction.

Not only have some GRAMA requests become excessive, but they also have led officials to believe individuals have been using the GRAMA process to get public documents to further commercial interests, making the government a research arm of private businesses.

“There have been multiple cities that have received requests for all the building permits related to pools so that this company could then follow-up with these new pool owners within the city to try and sell them a product,” Diehl said.

The Utah Media Coalition — made up of the state’s newspapers, broadcast outlets and journalism organizations — has opposed moves in the past to have the government designate “good and bad” records requesters.

“It’s going to be difficult. Commercial needs should get less priority in terms of getting free records over something that concerns the public. Waivers should be available in such instances,” Petersen said.

There is currently no bill proposal for the board to consider. However, Diehl explained that he took the time to address the committee to see if they would be interested in pursuing the conversation further and keeping the dialogue going.

“I hope the media coalition can see that there is a problem that needs to be addressed and I hope that the public and the Legislature understand that the media coalition has a legitimate, genuine interest in ensuring transparency of public operations,” committee chairman Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said at the meeting.

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