Changes to Open Records Law Worry Media, Citizens Groups
By Jenny Brundin
Salt Lake City, UT – Citizen groups and media are worried about a bill they're calling a "full frontal assault" on the state's open records law known as GRAMA, the Government Records Management Act.Tuesday of this week, reporters and citizens for open government found out for the first time about House Bill 477.
DOUGALL: House Bill 477 amends GRAMA .fades under
And by Thursday afternoon, Representative John Dougal was presenting the bill on the House floor. The bill makes changes to the law defining what a public record and how members of the public or reporters can go about getting it. In the early days of the law, many legislators were champions of the public's right to access government information. Former House Speaker Marty Stephens - the father of GRAMA - pushed for fines and warning letters to the Governor when state agencies ignored requests. But times change.
HOUSE SPEAKER BECKY LOCKHART: Technology has changed significantly. Some of the things that we now have or were just barely starting, didn't even exist, things like .fade under.
House Speaker Becky Lockart told reporters the law needs to be updated to deal with new technologies. What wouldn't be considered public records? Legislative voice mails, instant messages, video chats, and text messages. When Grama was created 20 years ago, said House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, there were two ways lawmakers could communicate candidly in a side-bar conversation with one another: by phone or in person. Hughes says those candid conversations were exempted by Grama.
HUGHES: Just like we didn't create a telephone conservation as a government record, I think some of the ways that you would use your phone today could be considered just like it was 20 years ago, as a candid conversation that someone would have that would not be a government record.
The bill has more sweeping changes - requiring that information-seekers provide a preponderance of evidence to support disclosure and pay higher fees for searches that take more than 15 minutes. Media representatives were upset the bill came out this week, with no prior consultation with the media or citizen lobbyist groups. Reporters challenged Speaker Lockhart on that point during her regular meeting with them. Here's her response to Fox 13's Max Roth.
LOCKHART: Well, we have lots of other bills that just came out, there were some immigration bills that just came out which are significant pieces of legislation, so there's nothing odd about this process.
MAX ROTH: Those immigration bills, I mean there's been a steady conversation throughout with members of the community, that sort of thing, but no one in the media industry had any idea .fade under
Media and citizen groups are worried about a steady chiseling away of access to information that is relevant to the public.
"These piecemeal exemptions chip away at citizens' access to the information they need to understand and influence government actions," said Marilyn O'Dell, co-president of the League of Women Voters in a media release.
For example, the Salt Lake Tribune, based on emails it obtained through an open records request, reported that Representative Carl Wimmer attempted to have the Department of Commerce head Francine Giani fired over her investigation of federally indicted businessman, Greg Koerber. Here's KSL's John Daley questioning Speaker Lockhart.
DALEY: That's not relevant public information? That's information that was obtained through GRAMA request of emails. That's the kind of thing that would no longer be available.
LOCKART: And that policy wouldn't change with this bill.
ROTH: Our understanding and our attorneys who have only had a chance to look at it since Tuesday, say it will.
LOCKHART: We believe that it does not.
But lawmakers have other concerns. They say they've been "swamped" with time-consuming requests for information -10 since the start of the legislative system t they say has taken 400 hours of staff time. All during the short, intense 45 day legislative session. Bill sponsor Representative John Dougall
DOUGALL: It defends the taxpayer from paying for the costs of voluminous fishing expeditions which consume thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.
Others say they're concerned about privacy of constituents, who assume correspondence with their representatives will be private. Other lawmakers were more aggressive in their criticism of the media. Representative Neil Hendrickson.
HENDRICKSON: The press thinks they are going to miss out on an opportunity that they can go fishing for some information and go dig up some dirt us is being me.
He said reporters make blanket requests for information because they are lazy. Representative Rebecca Chavez Howk was one of the few lawmakers who spoke against the bill. She said a bill this significant needs to be studied first. She said the State Records Committee informed her that it's content that determines whether information should be released, not the format. Here's an example the committee shared with her.
CHAVEZ-HOWCK: in this case a text message that is personal will not be made public as was made public as was determined by the committee in a recent hearing addressing texts between a UDOT employee and a private contractor. However, a text message that contains information related to the duties of a public official would and should be made public.
After a short 15 minutes of debate, House Bill 477 passed in a resounding 61 to 12 vote. It now goes to the Senate where it has a 3 p.m. public hearing today. And, a quick update on the budget. About ninety-five percent of it is finished . Lawmakers have added back most of the 7 percent cuts they made all state agencies draw up at the beginning of the session. They've reduced structural imbalance - that is funding on-going programs with one-time dollars - from $300 million to $50 million dollars. And, House Majority Whip Greg Hughes says, they're not tapping the state's rainy day fund.
HUGHES: That gives us I think, prepares us and the citizens of Utah for whatever the economic times are. We're not draining our rainy day fund.
There's still concern that some inmates may need to be released early, but lawmakers this year are allocating more money to transfer some inmates to county jails, which are cheaper. There's still some differences of opinion on other spending priorities which lawmakers will try to hammer out tonight.