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Utah Supreme Court sides with journalist in public records fight

Utah Agriculture Commissioner Kerry Gibson resigns to run for congress
Posted at 10:22 AM, Aug 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-20 12:22:57-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court unanimously sided with a journalist in a public records fight with a former Weber County Commissioner.

In a ruling handed down late Thursday, the state's top court rejected ex-Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson's demands to intervene in the public records request filed by Cathy McKitrick.

"Because he lacks standing under the plain language of the statute under which he is a claimant, Gibson may not proceed on traditional or alternative standing grounds," Justice Paige Petersen wrote in the opinion.

The records fight goes back to 2017 when McKitrick, a freelance journalist now, sought records about an investigation into Gibson. The Court opinion said Gibson was accused of misusing public resources for personal benefit. After the Davis County Attorney investigated and closed the case with no charges against Gibson, McKitrick filed a request under the Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA).

"Gibson objected. And Ogden City denied McKitrick’s request. The City determined that 'the public’s interest in disclosure does not outweigh the City’s interest in classifying [the] records as private and protected,' and it classified the records accordingly," Justice Petersen wrote.

McKitrick appealed the records denial.

"Although Gibson was not an official party to the Review Board proceedings, he had the opportunity to be heard at the hearing through his attorney. Gibson argued that disclosure of the records would constitute a 'clearly unwarranted invasion of [his] personal privacy' because, as evidenced by the decision of the Davis County Attorney’s Office not to file charges, the allegations underlying the investigation proved 'unsubstantiated,'" Justice Petersen wrote.

The case ultimately would up before the Utah Supreme Court, where the justices sided with McKitrick that Gibson couldn't intervene.

"And despite his status as the subject of the records here, we conclude that Gibson is not within the scope of those authorized by the legislature to seek such review. Further, we hold that because Gibson lacks standing under the plain terms of the statute (GRAMA) through which he stakes his claim, that claim may not proceed even though Gibson has traditional standing," Justice Petersen wrote.

Gibson left the Weber County Commission in 2018 to serve in the Utah Department of Natural Resources. He was appointed to state agriculture commissioner, then resigned to run for U.S. Congress. An audit released last year into accusations if improper conduct in the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food revealed that Gibson had been placed on administrative leave by Gov. Gary Herbert before he ultimately resigned.

The ruling could have an impact on future public records requests in the state. Rulings by the Utah Supreme Court typically set precedence for other cases.

Read the Utah Supreme Court opinion here: