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It was a good week for government in the sunshine in Utah, with three bills gaining steam on Capitol Hill to strengthen Utahns' right to know. That comes as even the sponsor of Utah's much maligned HB477 appears to have become a reformed champion of open government.
A Senate committee and the full Senate unanimously passed SB177 this week. Sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the bill contains four revisions to Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). The bill is a result of consensus amendments drawn from the GRAMA working group's monthslong discussions. Lawmakers created the working group after the ill-conceived HB477 was passed and then repealed.
While HB477 was a product of secrecy and legislative hubris, SB177's drafting relied on a working group where many voices had input. The bill makes good on a promise to revisit GRAMA and provide the public with a bill that attempts to balance both government concerns and a need for openness.
Utahns should tell their lawmakers to support this bill and ask that any future changes made to Utah's open government laws follow a similar consensus-building process. As this column has advocated before, lawmakers ought to create a formal group, following the GRAMA working group model, which reviews any bill impacting state records or open-meetings laws.
Key provisions of SB177 include the following:
Ombudsman • The bill creates a state GRAMA ombudsman who would assist records requesters as well as record custodians. The working group found a gap between what GRAMA says and understood by government record keepers. An ombudsman's office would promote citizen access and give basic legal assistance for government records officers.
Presumption of openness • If the bill passes, the ombudsman would have an improved law that makes clear what GRAMA's intent language says: Records held by the government are presumed to be public unless there is a specific reason spelled out in law to close a record.
SB177 also says that record keepers and the courts can use a "balancing test" where, when the interests in keeping the record closed are equal to the public interest, the public interest trumps. This allows an agency head, a city records appeals panel, the State Records Committee or a judge to effectively use the balancing test when the public interest does outweigh other interests.
Private correspondence • SB177 further defines what correspondence public officials must treat as a "record." If public officials aren't acting in their official capacity when they shoot off an email or receive a text message, then the content of the message isn't considered a record.
Litigation exception • The bill says the government can withhold a document from the public because its release could harm a public entity's ability to argue a court case. That's a reasonable clarification in cases of imminent litigation.
Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, also appears to have learned something from the whole HB477 fiasco. Dougall, as HB477's primary sponsor, spent last session vilifying nefarious journalists and verbally painting scary scenes of government run amok and gone broke over records-happy GRAMA requesters. Two bills indicate he's forging a new political image.
Dougall's HB337 would create a statewide website to publish public records released under GRAMA along with meeting minutes and meeting agendas. This is a smart idea to make public records more readily available.
In HB491, Dougall also wants to make it clear that when school board and city councils appoint a new mayor or board member between regular elections, the replacement process should be transparent. The bill is needed after Orem and Provo used a secretive process to replace a mayor and a city council member this past year.
Both bills have received "Bright Lights" from the GRAMA watch group.
Joel Campbell is a former reporter and current associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. He is also a consultant for GRAMA WATCH. He writes on First Amendment and open-government issues for The Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.