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Utah Reduces Government Transparency

Article Date: 
11 March, 2011 (All day)

 

In a controversial move, Governor Herbert signed into law House Bill HB477 and in one stroke of the pen significantly reduced the openness of Utah government.  He took this action after repeatedly supporting a policy of transparency.  

HB477 modifies the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).  This is a law that allows public access to government records.  It is the primary law that the media and private individuals obtain access to public records and allows for discovery of public information.  

Much of the information in the article on Garth Day in this week’s edition of the newspaper was obtained through a GRAMA request.  For the first time restrictions will be placed on information disclosed based on the communication medium.  Records that are now excluded from the act are voice mails or the transcriptions of voice mails, instant messages, video chats, and text messages.  These items are excluded whether or not they are conducted in the course of the individual’s governmental responsibility or relate to government actions.

When The Morgan County News contacted Representative Mel Brown by email, he quickly emailed back stating, “I appreciate your concern over government transparency and individual accountability. When GRAMA was created years ago, it was intended to create a system whereby citizens could have reasonable access to the legislative process. At that time, the legislative process was not as readily accessible as it is today what with the current electronic outlets of communication that we have now. Our gradual shift in society and dependence on new technologies have made electronic communications so prevalent that literally almost all communication – especially that which occurs between legislators and their families – occur over these communications lines.”

He continued, “I too understand the need for the citizens of Utah to know what is going on during the legislative process. As was earlier stated this process has become much more transparent with the Internet and tools available on the Utah State Legislature’s website (le.utah.gov). However, it is unreasonable to mandate that legislators, or any person for that matter, should have their personal e-mails, text-messages, or voice mails open to public scrutiny and media publication. To protect the privacy of our families and constituents like yourself who communicate with legislators on a regular basis, it is necessary to modify GRAMA to account for these new forms of communication.” 

Brown also called back and talked to us on Thursday, the last day of the Legistative Session, and talked to us again. We thank him for doing so. 

The Morgan County News also tried to contact Senator Allan Christensen, by phone and email on Monday, and at press time, Thursday afternoon, Christensen has not responded either by phone or email. 

The legislative change does not, however, only restrict access to items that are personal.  It relates to all information whether the subject is governmental or personal.  The legislation also already contains many sections designed to protect the privacy of individuals.

In addition, the new legislation expands the charges that can be levied for the requests.  It adds wording that the governmental entity can, in addition to the currently allowed recovery of costs directly related to the request, add fees “including costs of overhead and administration.”  The legislation also removes restrictions that would limit the costs to the lowest paid individual who could reasonably perform the work.  It is not clear what these additional charges will be, but these charges will inevitably create additional barriers to public access.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) responded to this legislation stating, “By signing the bill, Governor Herbert ignored a public rally, numerous letters and e-mails sent by citizens outraged by the bill, and the collective sentiment of the open government community. Worse, he did so less than a day after he claimed that he was ‘pleased’ by the Senate’s 23-6 vote to stop HB477 from going into effect immediately and delay its implementation until July 1. The House quickly followed suit, approving the effective date change by a vote of 42-29.

Governor Herbert was quoted as saying, ‘I’m encouraged they are committed to amending the bill in order to provide for a more thorough and deliberative process.’

Then, hours later, he signed the bill.

In a prepared statement sent to the media, including The Morgan County News, the governor said: ‘This bill provides a way to find the right balance between the public’s right to know and the personal privacy of both constituents and policymakers, while protecting taxpayer dollars.’

‘Our goal is open and transparent government,’ he said.

Were this even remotely true, he would have vetoed HB477 instantly, as the bill takes Utah back to the days before freedom of information laws existed.”

The bill was amended to delay implementation until July 1.  Both Senator Christensen (achristensen@utahsenate.org), and Representative Mel Brown (melbrown@utah.gov) who represent Morgan County  voted in favor of this bill.  

The legislature and governor will now have three and a half months to consider whether to change any of the provisions of the bill.  If no changes are made the bill will go into effect as it currently stands.