Bill would change Utah public records law, aims to limit 'vexatious requests'

A proposed bill would change Utah records law and potentially make records requests more costly to the public.

HB96 would change the state's Government Records Access and Management Act, also known as GRAMA, to allow government entities to charge for all the time spent fulfilling a records request if the requester has filed a separate request in the 10 days prior. As of now, the initial 15 minutes of fulfilling a request cost nothing to the requester regardless of how many requests were filed in the previous days.

The bill, which is being sponsored by Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, was presented to the House Government Operations Committee on Monday and was later approved by the committee in a 10-1 vote.

Cache County Clerk/Auditor Jess Bradfield spoke on behalf of the Utah Association of County Clerks and the Utah Association of Counties, a group he said fully supports the bill.

Bradfield said the proposed bill would not limit the potential number of requests that can be filed, but it would put a limit on the number of requests that would be granted the fee waiver for 15 minutes of work. He claimed the bill "protects the right of an individual to petition the government for information."

"Unfortunately, vexatious and serial requesters have learned that they're allowed to submit an unlimited number of small requests each day to an entity," Bradfield told the committee. "Such actions throw a stick in the spokes of government offices and are most detrimental to those who request information for the public benefit such as news agencies or individuals who may be impacted by a policy or program and require information in a timely manner."

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, told the committee that he can see both sides of the bill, and that he's seen antagonism on both sides of the issue. He said he wasn't sure if the proposed bill would add to or reduce that antagonism.

"I'm not sure if this is an accommodation or if it's a reaction to people who need information and are requesting information," Lyman said.

Bradfield said the goal is to limit "vexatious requests" in order for government entities to run more smoothly and address more "legitimate" requests in a timely manner. He emphasized that the bill would not prevent someone from filing a public records request, and that requesters would have 36 free requests a year.

Renae Cowley Laub, a representative for the Utah Media Coalition, spoke against the proposed bill and said the legislation could have a chilling effect on most requesters. Instead, Cowley Laub mentioned a process used in other states where the government would have to meet certain requirements to label someone as a "vexatious requester," which could include a media organization.

"I'm intrigued because I would love to label the Salt Lake Tribune as a vexatious requester," Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said. "So I think if you want to go down that path, let us know because we may have a substitute bill coming."

Bradfield said that only 1% to 2% of the GRAMA requests submitted to Cache County were from members of the media. He said 39% of the 100 requests filed in the past 10 months came from a single person.

Thurston later motioned to vote for a favorable recommendation on the bill, which was passed 10-1. The lone no vote was cast by Lyman, who told the committee he still had concerns about the bill.

"When you put in a new fee like this, it sends a strong message that, you know, the government is in charge of this and they're not going to be controlled by the people," Lyman said. "And I think the people want to send a strong message to the government that the people are in charge of it, they're not going to be controlled by the government."

He added that while Cache County sounded like it has a good system in place, "some counties, they drag their feet, they put people through the wringer."

"I think this is a move in the wrong direction, myself, so I'm gonna vote no on it," Lyman said.

The bill now goes to the full House for consideration.