SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Records Committee ruled Thursday that a business contract between Utah State University and Maverik convenience stores over the renaming of the university's renovated football stadium is public record.
The university announced the naming rights partnership in April, dubbing the former Romney Stadium as Maverik Stadium, as well as the construction of a new four-story press box and premium seating facility.
The Herald Journal in Logan originally requested access to the contract through the Government Records Access Management Act, commonly known as GRAMA, but the university denied the request, citing that Maverik claimed business confidentiality in the deal.
The denial sparked a debate over what extent contracts between businesses and government entities, such as a public university, are public records.
Ryan Brady, associate general counsel for Utah State University, said the business confidentiality agreement was made to prevent "competitive injury" to Maverik and its advertising strategy, and the university had no choice but to deny the request for public disclosure.
"We love disclosing documents to the public and we do so all the time," Brady said. "But in this case, we feel like our hands are tied. We want to be in compliance with GRAMA and feel like, in fact, a disclosure of this document after Maverik has done everything required by the law would be a violation of GRAMA."
The Herald Journal subsequently filed an appeal through the State Records Committee.
Joel Campbell, an associate professor of journalism at Brigham Young University and board member of the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the records were misclassified from the beginning and that the public interest outweighs commercial interests.
"The public ought to know the basics of the contract — how much, what the terms are," Campbell said. "If the government is going to make a contract with a business entity, … what is the public on the hook for?"
The committee turned down motions on both sides of the argument and later entertained the idea of redacting financial portions of the contract and releasing the rest. But in a final 6-1 vote, the committee decided make the entire contract public, noting that ruling otherwise would set a precedent of excessive confidentiality in future cases.
"I am afraid that if we say that you can entirely protect a government contract from disclosure that we will see a slew of government contracts being protected," said committee member Holly Richardson. "I think the intent of the GRAMA law is clearly to favor public disclosure."
Maverik and USU will have 30 days to appeal the decision in court before the contract is released.
University spokesman Tim Vitale said it was unclear whether an appeal would be filed and how the ruling would impact the university's partnership with Maverik in funding the stadium's renovation.
"We've heard the committee's decision and we'll take that under advisement and go back and talk to Maverik, discuss it ourselves and see what decisions we have from there," Vitale said. "We felt like we had a really strong case. We did think we argued from the basis of the law itself, GRAMA and the provisions in it. We didn't expect the decision, but we'll work within that decision."
Charles McCollum, managing editor of the Herald Journal, said he hopes the committee's decision will stand and that the public will be allowed to review the conditions of the contract between Maverik and the university.
"I just think that they made the right decision," McCollum said. "These contracts are something that the public has really high interest in — what exactly is a university bargaining away? When this came up, we thought, 'We need to see the whole contract.'"