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Gov Wants Repeal of Open Records Law; Lt. Gov Says Ethics Signatures No Good

Open government gang sign
Photo by Joebeone
Open government gang sign

By Jenny Brundin

Salt Lake City, UT – Two major announcements were made yesterday that relate to the role Utahns play in the legislative process. A citizens group that thought it had enough signatures to get an ethics initiative for lawmakers on the ballot - was told it has to start over again. And -- Utah Governor Gary Herbert and the House Republicans caucus called for the repeal of a controversial new open records law - the Government Records Management Act or GRAMA. KUER's Jenny Brundin reports.

The new law exempts text messages, instant messages and video-chats from public scrutiny and increases the cost of records requests. It was approved in less than a week, causing a public uproar starting the final night of the legislative session.

[PROTESTORS SINGING] Shining the Light, I'm gonna shine the light, let it shine, let it shine .

House Republican lawmakers said yesterday that two weeks of emails and calls from angry constituents, as well as bad press, forced them to re-examine the new law. House Majority Leader Brad Dee:

DEE: What you see here is the greatest representative form of democracy. What we're saying here is maybe you haven't understood it correctly because you haven't had all the correct information the last few weeks. So let's take a step back let's repeal the bill, let's talk about it for the next few months. House Speaker Becky Lockhart said the legislative process was followed, but she said lawmakers have heard the public and want to give them a chance to be involved.

LOCKHART: What we are doing now is stepping back. We are listening to our constituents, and we're saying OK we understand. You felt that you wanted to have more input. And so we're going to take a step back and allow that process to move forward.

Dee said the caucus was unanimous however, that they will NOT accept doing nothing. Lockhart said lawmakers need clarity on what is a public record and what isn't in an era of new technology.

LOCKHART: Because on the one hand we get told, oh, that's protected. And then the very next day, we get a GRAMA request requesting it.

Added Majority Leader Brad Dee.

DEE: We've had for requests of text messages between family members, text messages between constituents. I think we can all agree upon that.

Legislative leaders announced the creation of a working group that includes legislative, media, and citizens groups to update the 20-year-old law. Linda Petersen will be a member of that group. She's the President of the Utah foundation For Open Government.

PETERSEN: The primary thing lawmakers need to do is educate themselves about GRAMA. I think, and I hope through that discussion, to be able to show them that a lot what they are worried about is already covered in GRAMA, they are already protected under GRAMA.

For example, lawmakers already don't have to disclose personal communications under the Government Records Management Act. Petersen surmises that legislators who have stories of releasing such information usually they got bad advice or incorrectly assumed they had to give out private information when they didn't. Petersen argues that texting is used like emailing now. She says watch any day of lawmakers debating on the floor. Any number of them are communicating on their blackberries.

PETERSEN: Who are they communicating with? Are they telling their wives I'm going to be home late for dinner honey? Or are they communicating with a powerful lobbyist. This way powerful lobbyists have access to them on the floor. It's like literally those people walking in the doors, interrupting the proceedings of the legislature, and having a conversation with a legislator at that point. It's very different than a private conversation that might be had out in the hall.

Those issues will all be sorted out in the working group, which has its first public meeting tomorrow. Yesterday's lengthy House Republican closed-caucus came just hours after Governor Gary Herbert declared that he wants a a new version of House Bill 477 to pass. He's called for a special session this Friday. Meanwhile, a grassroots coalition is keeping the pressure on. Save Grama is gathering signatures for a referendum on the matter. Again, Linda Petersen.

PETERSEN: We think that at this point it's clear that the people who need to decide are the people are Utah. And to do that we got to pass a referendum and we got to get House Bill 477 onto the ballot.

The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that Senate Republicans meanwhile could derail the repeal. Senate President Michael Waddoups told the Tribune Monday evening that the Senate would not go along with the repeal effort and that the Governor may have to get a Democrat to sponsor it in the Senate. The majority of House and Senate Democrats opposed changing GRAMA from the outset. Meanwhile, another citizens group was dealt a blow yesterday. Utahns For Ethical Government is trying to get an ethics initiative aimed at lawmakers on the 2012 ballot. Yesterday, they filed a lawsuit against Lt. Gov Greg Bell, claiming he is violating state law over rules for petition signatures. UEG attorney David Irvine.

IRVINE: In view of the lack of a fair playing field or level playing field upon which we find ourselves, we have concluded that our only recourse against a state office which seems determined to do everything possible to spike our petition, we reluctantly are seeking judicial relief

Irvine says Bell, who oversees the state elections office, is not giving them 12 months to gather signatures, which is the allotted time in state law. The group submitted 120,000 paper signatures to get the ethics measure on next year's ballot. Late in the day, Bell's office sent a UEG a letter declaring - among other issues - since many of the signatures UEG -gathered were originally for the 2010 election, the group would have to start over again. Lawmakers this session took care of the thorny issue of whether electronic signatures would be counted - by banning the practice.

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