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EFR Appeals Heavily Redacted Uintah County PhenomeCon Contracts

Expanding Frontiers Research (EFR) submitted public records requests to Uintah County in 2023 for material responsive to the county's latest PhenomeCon. The seemingly straightforward request led to more requests, two appeals, a scheduled mediation meeting - and it's far from finished. The requests were submitted under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA.

PhenomeCon is a paranormal-themed conference held annually since 2021 in Vernal, Utah. As previously reported by EFR, hundreds of thousands of dollars - in tax money - have been allocated to the event that is sponsored by Uintah County, a community that was reeling from the sticker shock of a proposed 73% property tax increase.

The County Commission recommended the tax increase to deal with deficits, inflation and to pay for ongoing government services like policing, snowplows, fuel, and employees. Commissioners said funding was simply no longer available to cover the necessary expenses. Following significant public backlash, the tax increase was shelved.

Uintah County nonetheless pays cast members of The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch and other speakers tens of thousands of dollars to appear at the event out of those hundreds of thousands spent on PhenomeCon. About half the budget has gone to various appearances made during the event, along with stipends, lodging, and similar expenses.

Proponents argue the conference increases tourism, even if many of its speakers traffic in dubious tales. Others are skeptical of those claims of local prosperity, however, and the county's lack of eager willingness to open its books and provide documentation of purported public financial benefit does not seem to help build its case.

In the latest GRAMA requests to Uintah County, the Travel and Tourism Office responded with 14 pages, but only three of those pages directly pertained to PhenomeCon financial records. EFR appealed to the Uintah County Chief Administrative Officer on the grounds of an inadequate search and an incomplete response. The appeal resulted in obtaining an additional 140 pages of responsive records, 92 of which consist of heavily redacted contracts drawn up by the county with speakers and vendors.

“The redactions to the contracts are being made as per the agreement in the contracts that the terms would remain confidential,” the Chief Administrative Officer wrote in a Dec. 1 response to the GRAMA request.

A three-page Uintah County PhenomeCon contract entered into with UFO and Skinwalker Ranch personality Travis Taylor, indicating at least $3,500 in compensation was to be issued, and highly similar in appearance to the 90-plus pages of other agreements released in heavily redacted form to EFR:

EFR again appealed the GRAMA response, this time to the State Records Committee, arguing Uintah County lacked the authority to undertake a confidentiality agreement with service providers that effectively obstructs the GRAMA. The very purpose of the state records act, EFR contends, is to ensure transparency and allow the public to know how the government conducts its business. Mediation is scheduled for early February and a hearing will be conducted in March with the Records Committee if a solution is not reached.

EFR will publish and thoroughly report on 2023 PhenomeCon records obtained after its GRAMA cases are followed through to completion.

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