Opinionated @ CFE

How Not to Submit a GRAMA Request


If you’re looking for a somewhat entertaining read, look no further than the response to the Utah Democratic Party’s request for redistricting information. The Office of Legislative Research and General Council (OLRGC) responded to what can only be described as a fishing expedition of a request, a massive trolling net designed to scrape up all kinds of irrelevant flotsam in the hope of finding one small thing of value.

And how broad is it? It demands every single record related to House, Senate, and Congressional redistricting to or from any legislator or their staff. As I’ve mentioned before, the House and Senate maps both passed their respective houses almost unanimously, so what good does it to to request all of the records relating to these maps? It’s almost designed explicitly to be rejected as a freebie, and it hints that there’s really no evidence to support a lawsuit. Anyone who has actually worked with GRAMA knows that the most successful requests are specific and targeted, not overly broad.

More hilarious are the ground upon which the Party is requesting a fee waiver. The law provides that fees can be waived if the primary beneficiary of the release is the general public. In the request, however, the Party says rather bluntly that they intend to use the records in a potential lawsuit. They still insist, however, that the public is the primary beneficiary. Uh, what? Last I checked, the OLRGC is not designed to be a legal research team subsidized by the taxpayers, and if your intent of the request is to start suing people, it’s insulting to try and pretend that your primary objective is to look out for the public good.

Another portion of the law provides that a fee can be waived if it is related to the individual filing the request. Stunningly, the Party tried to insist that it is an individual under the law (ironic since most of them oppose Citizens United), a claim that OLGRC saw right through. They also dismissed the claim that because the fee “may” be waived that they are required to.

I find myself wondering if the legal eagles planning their lawsuit are rank amateurs or if they just want to see what sticks. I’ve said before that the legal threats are both poor strategy and a waste of time and money. This latest sloppy move only confirms it.

Redistricting Histrionics


Last night, the Utah Legislature finally signed off on a map for Congressional districts. Unsurprisingly, more than a few individuals were engaged in over-the-top weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth that could teach William Shanter more than a few things about over-acting. While I can accept a lot of legitimate complaints about the final product (it’s not my first choice either), a lot of the claims made by critics are either logically inconsistent or flat-out lies.


The Redistricting Lawsuit Blunder


Every decision we make is a calculated risk, trying to figure out if the reward and odds of success are worth the potential pain. Most of the time, we do fairly well. Every now and again, someone, somewhere, will make such a boneheaded miscalculation that the rest of us will scratch our heads and go “huh?” Utah Democratic Party Chair Jim Dababkis is having one of those moments right now.

For those of you not paying attention, Dababkis threatened a lawsuit over the current redistricting effort due to perceived gerrymandering. I’ve looked at some of the proposed maps and, yes, I think the Sumsion 6 Congressional one in particular is a real stinker. It’s kind of a problem, though, to threaten to sue over a map that hasn’t even been adopted yet. Already some substantively different maps have been seriously discussed (including one from Speaker Lockhart that actually looks half-decent), and there’s still plenty of time for back-and-forth to create more new maps. Throwing down the threat now is petulant foot-stomping.

This doesn’t even get into the risk/reward problem that following through on such a threat presents. Consider that the odds of winning a lawsuit on redistricting are extremely slim. Even if such a suit succeeded, we’re talking about maybe 3-4 total seats affected in the legislature. And the cost? I’d say a good six figures after all of the inevitable appeals. (Them lawyers don’t come cheap.) It’s a very high cost with a very small reward and a very high risk. The money might as well be put on red down in Vegas.

The whole affair has been correctly pegged as grandstanding. Dababkis isn’t enough of a rank amateur to think that any suit filed would actually succeed, but he knows that he can score a bunch of political points with the party faithful, even if it is a complete waste of their rather limited funds. Unfortunately, it’ll stop there, and fail to resonate with the rest of the electorate.

Fixing Redistricting Through Smaller Districts


We all knew that redistricting would be a tough business, but I’m not sure anyone suspected it would be this tough. In addition to the normal partisan concerns, cities and counties are all calling for not being split up into multiple districts. There’s also a dichotomous message of “don’t gerrymander” combined with “don’t make us lose seats even though the population figures say we should” coming from Utah Democrats. There are things, though, that would readily alleviate many of these problems.

The Legislature has opted to keep the House frozen at 75 seats rather than allowing it to expand to the limit of 87 from Article IX, Section 2 of the Utah Constitution. This creates less flexibility in redistricting as each seat need to contain roughly 33,000 residents. Even an expansion to the maximum limit would only drop the size of a district to 28,500. This makes it difficult to not split up large cities or combine smaller cities together, sometimes in piecemeal, but it is a step in the right direction. Consider that in 1900, just four years after statehood, Utah had just 276,000 people and a district with the current number of seats would be just 3700 people. We have ten times as many people, but no more representation. This will obviously mean that many voices will not be heard.

While we can’t do much about the federal level (though organizations like ThirtyThousand working to fix it), we can absolutely work to make sure that our districts allow for much more fine-grained representation. It’s too late to do anything for this year, but we should ask that something be done to expand the House as much as possible. It will keep neighborhoods whole, make legislators more responsive and accountable, and allow cash-poor candidates the opportunity to serve.

Is the Utah County Surveyor's Office to blame for Craig Frank's problems?


What a mess this is. Rep. Craig Frank got a nasty surprise over the weekend when he found out that he doesn’t actually live in the district he was elected to represent. Utah County has kept its mouth shut about the bad maps it had been handing out, the legislature is trying to get a special session to get Rep. Frank re-districted back into his seat, and there’s plenty of blame and finger-pointing going around. I feel a little bit bad for everyone.

The voters are the ones really hosed. As many as 3300 are in electoral limbo now, unsure of who represents them in Congress or the legislature. Rep. Frank also got a raw deal because he bought a house based on the bad Utah County maps and ended up on, quite literally, the wrong side of the street. The Utah County Clerk is trying to figure out how it all went wrong.

In all of it though, nobody is asking why it happened. A big part of it is that the area in question was a whole lot of nothing when boundaries were originally drawn in 2001. Then Cedar Hills incorporated, started annexing bits of county land, houses and roads started going up, and before you know it, where exactly those lines used to be starts getting a bit fuzzy. It’s a lot like trying to establish the ownership of a mortgage after it has changed hands a half dozen times in just a few years.

This is all a job of the county surveyor. So how did that ball get dropped? Is the office understaffed? Are they using poor practices? Is it a case of bad leadership? All roads lead there. The surveyor is required by Utah Code 17-23-1 to hash out such details. We should be asking not just how and why it didn’t get done properly, but how it got messed up to the tune of 3300 voters, a not so insignificant number of people. That’s the question not being asked.

While I appreciate that something needs to be done, Speaker Lockhart’s push to change the boundaries to include Rep. Frank again just doesn’t feel right somehow. (The House GOP Caucus apparently feels the same and voted down a special session to address it.) I know, the voters picked him, he thought he had determined he’d still be eligible for the office, and you can’t really blame either of them. We have to ask ourselves, however, if such a remedy would still be employed if the mistake was discovered, but Rep. Frank was still living inside his district. I would guess probably not. It also seems kind of rash to make a quick fix now ahead of a redistricting process that refuses to draw an incumbent outside of their district, even if all other reasons say to do so. Such a change now could drastically alter the boundaries of current districts in both houses.

In all, we have a bad situation and no particularly good fixes. I hope that expediency doesn’t win out here.

I Support Fair Boundaries


It’s no secret that district boundaries for elective office are often drawn in creative ways. Districts are often made to favor a particular political party or candidate with little regard for the identity of the voters in the district. All too often, neighborhoods are divided up or dissimilar neighborhoods lumped together to satisfy one of these needs. It has become particularly egregious in Utah with Tooele County divided up into four chunks for its State Senate district and Salt Lake County split three ways for purposes of creating US House districts. Rural areas get drowned out by being paired up with a significant urban population. This kind of abusive redistricting cannot continue.

We can, however, find problems with proposed solutions to these issues. All too often, the response is drafted by and spearheaded by a minority party in an attempt to grab hold of more electoral power behind a mask of fairness. I took the time today to read through the Fair Boundaries initiative to make sure that it addresses this problem in a logical and truly non-partisan fashion. I’m glad to report that its emphasis on drawing districts by neighborhood and geography with an emphasis on compactness not only makes sense, it appears to be free of any partisan influence.

I support the Fair Boundaries initiative and I hope you will too.

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