SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A Republican-dominated Utah legislative commission is throwing its support behind using state money to help pay legal bills of a county commissioner convicted in an ATV ride protesting federal control of public lands.
Despite opposition from its two Democratic members, the state commission for the stewardship of public lands voted Tuesday to send a recommendation to the state’s Constitutional Defense Council.
The council, which meets next later this summer, controls money set aside by the Legislature for legal battles with the federal government over things such as control of county roads and the state’s fight to wrest control of public land.
The money would help San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who along with blogger Monte Wells was found guilty by a jury last month of federal misdemeanor charges.
Republican Rep. Mike Noel of Kanab argued that Lyman was unfairly convicted and that the pending maximum sentence of up to one year in jail is extreme. Lyman is set to be sentenced later this summer.
“They are doing it to make an example out of a public official,” Noel said. “This is an injustice.”
Noel says he would like the council to use up to $100,000 to help Lyman.
He drew support from his fellow Republicans on the committee, including Rep. Ken Ivory, who has led a push for western states to take control of federal public lands through a nonprofit he runs.
But the two Democrats on the commission spoke out against the motion.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said the commission has no business getting involved in the judicial system and second-guessing jury verdicts or rulings from judges.
“The ‘poor commissioner Lyman’ doesn’t play with me,” Dabakis said. “He made the decision to have a public protest. Now he has to go face the music.”
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said he understands the frustrations of southern Utah residents about access to lands that they believe should be open, but he is against using state funds for the cause.
Briscoe said there should be plenty of libertarian think tanks that could find the money to help Lyman.
Lyman’s May 2014 protest ride drew about 50 people to southern Utah’s Recapture Canyon. It came shortly after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had a confrontation with the Bureau of Land Management over similar issues, illustrating the simmering tension between the federal government and some residents in the West over land use.
The BLM said it closed the canyon in 2007 to motorized vehicles to protect ancient ruins, dwellings and artifacts. Residents in the area, though, say they have used the ATV trail for generations and the closure was only supposed to be temporary. The BLM disagrees.
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