Gov. Gary Herbert's commission created to find ways to streamline government met for a second time Tuesday, again behind closed doors, with a lawyer for the state arguing the group isn't subject to state open meetings law.
Herbert created his Utah Advisory Commission to Optimize State Government earlier this month. The group, led by former Gov. Norm Bangerter and private-sector experts Fraser Bullock and Nolan Karras, is expected to scour state government and find areas where cuts can be made.
But the commission, which is staffed by employees from the governor's office, met earlier this month and again Tuesday in a private meeting at the Capitol.
Bangerter said the commission was following the guidance received "from upstairs," referring to the Governor's Office.
A lawyer for the state rejected a written request from The Salt Lake Tribune to open the meeting to the public under the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act and the spirit of the law.
Ron Gordon, an attorney and executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, writing on behalf of the governor, said the governor's panel was not created by Utah Constitution, statute, rule or resolution, and therefore is not subject to the Act.
Herbert called a press conference Sept. 3, during which he issued a "charter" to launch the group, which outlined the structure, membership, deadlines and guiding principles. Among those are being "independent" and "open."
Jeff Hunt, a media attorney, said the argument that the commission is not a public body is a technical one that could be made "to try to get around the purpose of the Open Meetings Act," but it is not consistent with the Legislature's intent in embracing open meetings.
"This is a public commission, supported by public tax dollars, charged with doing the public business, which means it should be open to the public," Hunt said. "I don't think it could be any clearer than that."
The commission is expected to provide its first set of recommendations this fall, before Herbert submits his budget proposal to the Legislature in December and then spend the next year delving deeper into finding ways to streamline state government.
"As the governor has expressed, the Advisory Commission's formal recommendations will be made public at the appropriate time," Gordon wrote in his letter. He wrote that it will be important for the commission to receive public input during the course of its meetings, and "may choose to invite the public to some meetings in order to solicit such input or to establish alternative methods to receive input."
Hunt said it is ironic that the first action taken by the commission created to help government work better is shutting out the public.
Read a copy of the letter outlining the governor's legal reasons for arguing the commission is exempt from the state's Open and Public Meetings Act.