- Associated Press - Thursday, June 19, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - After the state public records panel ordered Bluffdale to release documents related to the National Security Agency’s data center, the city has decided to cut the panel out of its public records appeals process.

The city council made the decision official last week in a unanimous vote.

The city’s change in appeals policy had nothing to do with the Salt Lake Tribune’s request, but drew from policy in West Valley City that would speed the process, Bluffdale City Attorney Vaughn Pickell said earlier this week.

In March, the state panel ordered the city to hand over to the Tribune records about the water Bluffdale sells to the data hub about 25 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Open-government advocates said the move makes it less likely records will be released during disputes.

The Legislature created the State Records Committee, but state law doesn’t require cities to use it in their appeals process, said attorney Jeff Hunt, who specializes in public-records issues.

But, he said, people or groups seeking appeals “ought to have an independent forum to make your case.”

The council will instead consider any appeals. If they are denied, parties may take them to state court. Under Utah law, a city can offer a single administrative appeal before directing a subsequent challenge to state court.

The city’s decision “will fuel suspicion with the public,” longtime government watchdog Claire Geddes said.

“What it does is eliminate many people from getting records,” Geddes said, later adding, “Most people don’t have the resources to go to court.”

The state records committee in March ordered Bluffdale to release the water documents to The Tribune, which sought them under Utah’s open records-laws.

Bluffdale initially fought releasing the records, citing opposition from the NSA that releasing the records could threaten the site’s security.

The utility records obtained by the Tribune in March showed the National Security Agency data center uses far less water than expected, raising questions about how much the center is used. NSA officials haven’t said if the center is up and running after electrical problems stalled its scheduled October opening.

The agency has paid its contract-required minimum monthly bills to the city, the records showed: about $29,000 in July and $32,000 in January 2014.

It’s paying for more water than it actually uses, Bluffdale City Manager Mark Reid told the Tribune.

The center plays a key role in the nation’s effort to protect national security networks and allows U.S. authorities to watch for potential cyber threats, NSA officials have said. They say operations at the center abide by U.S. law.

Suspicion grew last year after revelations that the agency collects millions of U.S. phone and other record from nine major Internet providers. Cybersecurity experts have said it holds increasing volumes of intercepted phone calls, emails and records of online purchases.

During Utah’s legislative session this year, one state lawmaker unsuccessfully brought a measure to cut off water to the center, saying he wanted to defend Utah residents’ rights to not be under surveillance.

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com

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