Utah Supreme Court rules on public records and what you have to pay to see them

Posted at 7:21 AM, Dec 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-22 22:12:09-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The state’s top court has made a ruling on public records requests and what you have to pay to see them.

In a largely technical ruling, the Utah Supreme Court upheld a demand by Salt Lake City to charge hundreds of dollars for access to public records on a soccer field.

The Jordan River Restoration Network sought a large amount of documents about the soccer fields built near 1900 West and 2200 North (the group ultimately sued over the project).

JRRN filed a request for Government Records Access Management Act for “all records in the City’s possession that related to the Project,” including “all agreements related to the Project, all correspondence and meeting information, all site selection analysis, all budgets, and all engineering plans,” Justice Paige Petersen wrote.

Salt Lake City said it could provide the records, but sought at least $200 upfront. JRRN appealed the fee to a city board, which sided with them but gave the city more time to respond to the records request. The State Records Committee also sided with JRRN.

The case ultimately went to court, where a judge ruled in favor of Salt Lake City. JRRN appealed to the Utah Supreme Court.

In the unanimous ruling published Friday night, the justices ruled that the lower court made “harmless errors” in the review of JRRN’s case, but ultimately upheld the fee request.

“Despite finding that JRRN’s ‘purpose was to primarily benefit the public,’ the court concluded that the City’s ‘decision to deny the requested fee waiver . . . was reasonable given the voluminous nature of the request and the effort necessary to compile the requested documents,” Justice Petersen wrote. “The district court did not also need to weigh competing interests pertinent to disclosure and nondisclosure. While fees do affect the public’s access to documents, the legislature has identified different considerations specific to the fee waiver context. The district court correctly identified and applied them here.”

JRRN and others have argued that fees can prohibit the public from getting access to government records. News media (including FOX 13) use GRAMA to obtain everything from nuisance complaints sent to city officials to 911 calls in the course of providing information about government actions to the public.

First Amendment advocates have worried that excessive fee requests can create a chilling effect on public access to government records.

Read the Utah Supreme Court’s ruling here (refresh the page if it doesn’t immediately load):