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Huntsman avoids e-mail notes
Some say he just wants to keep the public in the dark
By Rebecca Walsh
The Salt Lake Tribune
Published September 12, 2005 12:43 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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Publicly, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. advocates for Utah's high-tech entrepreneurs and their innovations.

But in the privacy of the governor's office, Huntsman seems to be a throwback to a bygone era - a time before computers and typewriters: He doesn't write e-mails. Instead, he pens notecards.

Huntsman somewhat sheepishly acknowledges his preference for the literally written word isn't particularly efficient. He says he swears off e-mail in his professional life because of its informality, the potential for sending something embarrassing out into cyberspace for anyone to read.

But the quaint practice of writing on notecards also apparently allows the governor to sidestep the state's open-records law. Requests to see some of his handwritten notes have been thwarted.

That makes good-government advocates worry about what's going on in the shadows and has archivists questioning how future generations will be able to decipher what Utah's 16th governor was thinking.

Walter Jones, who works in the University of Utah's Special Collections, doesn't believe the governor can really be avoiding technology in an attempt to keep his records private. And if he is, Jones says, the public should be outraged.

"This does not pass the smell test," Jones said. "I just can't imagine him getting through the day without an e-mail. How does he do business? It just sounds absurd."

The governor knows it sounds strange. When he needs to see an e-mail, staff members print it out for him. When he communicates with them, he said he fills out one of three different styles of notecards. It's what he did when he was a deputy U.S. trade ambassador and the notecards have served him well.

"I don't do e-mail because I think you can always be set up for an unfortunate incident if you spill your soul. I've seen more legal problems tied up in e-mail than I have in any other form of communication. You have to think twice before using it that way," Huntsman said. In contrast, he points out, "I have stacks of notecards."

Huntsman's no-e-mail office policy has helped him avoid the questions that have confounded past governors and legislators. Members of a legislative task force are considering whether government officials' e-mails should be classified as public record. E-mails to legislators are not treated as public record. But The Salt Lake Tribune sued former Gov. Mike Leavitt to gain access to his e-mail. That case dragged on two years before it ultimately was settled.

With notecards, Huntsman so far has avoided the conflict. In June, The Salt Lake Tribune requested all correspondence between the Governor's Office and other agencies regarding Huntsman's idea to move the Utah State Prison. The pile of papers the governor's staff provided was made up almost entirely of constituents' e-mail and letters. It contained no comment from any policy makers in the Governor's Office or the Department of Corrections on the topic.

Similar public records requests have turned up a dearth of e-mail and other correspondence. A request for correspondence regarding former International Trade Director Layne Palmer, for example, turned up one e-mail from Huntsman Chief of Staff Jason Chaffetz - a single line with a phone number for Palmer.

Chaffetz says he puts every e-mail into a file. His assistant saves them on a hard drive. And the governor's attorney, Mike Lee, sifts through them and deletes those that will not be saved. "Everybody forewarned [the governor] that e-mail could come back to haunt him: Anything that is coming or going you could read about in the paper," Chaffetz said.

Getting copies of the governor's only other form of written communication, those notecards, is equally difficult. In an interview a month ago, Huntsman spokeswoman Tammy Kikuchi said she kept a file of the governor's missives. But when has repeatedly complained about the number of media records requests received. And in June, Communications Assistant Lindsay Mueller sent an e-mail to all state public information officers suggesting they charge for producing records when responding proved "labor intensive."

Society of Professional Journalists Attorney Jeff Hunt and Common Cause Director Tony Musci worry the governor's attempts to avoid public scrutiny are part of a larger nationwide trend away from public access. President Bush has cut off historians' access to his father's papers while in the Oval Office. Sandy City recently resisted - on grounds of post-9/11 security concerns - providing even the names of police officers.

Charging fees as the Governor's Office suggests can be a way of blocking public accountability, notes Musci.

"Government activities should be as transparent as possible in a democracy," he said. "The records that are kept serve as the foundation for how tax dollars are used. If you can't access those records, you can't fully understand why government officials are doing the things they're doing. It makes it possible for leaders to act in ways that are more nefarious."

Hunt says the governor's machinations are unnecessary. GRAMA provides adequate protections for the governor's correspondence - limiting access to drafts or contemplated policies, for example.

"There isn't any reason for the governor not to create records, not to use e-mail," Hunt said. "The public loses out."



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