Show your work
Public bodies must meet in the open
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When a math teacher wants to know that a student really understood how to solve a complex problem, and didn't just make a lucky guess or crib off the student at the next desk, they put this direction at the top of the test: "Show your work."

That is what the Utah Open And Public Meetings Act is all about. In order for the public to fully understand not just what the laws and regulations are, but how they came to be, legislative sessions and committee meetings, as well as meetings of state boards and local governing bodies, are required to be open. Not only that, but the public is entitled to some advance notice of when certain topics are to be discussed.

This message has yet to permeate the thinking of many members of the Utah Legislature. A recent committee meeting saw discussion, without proper notice, of a measure that would have shifted a significant portion of the property tax burden away from some taxpayers and onto others.

Only a protest by a member of the Democratic minority called attention to the fact that the House Revenue and Taxation Committee discussed, without proper notice, HB41. That's committee chairman Patrick Painter's bill to increase, from the current $3,500 to $25,000, the amount of a business's property that would be exempt from property taxes. Painter, R-Nephi, is a car dealer, a business that would be among those benefiting from a projected $12 million tax shift.

He and the committee's vice chairman, Rep. David Butterfield, R-Logan, later fessed up to the violation. But because no vote was held, both pleaded no harm, no foul.

But there was harm. An important change to state tax policy was reviewed in a forum where committee members could easily have acted to their own satisfaction, then scheduled a pro forma vote for another day. Which is exactly what happens — legally — when the House and Senate Republican caucuses meet privately. Or when a state regulatory commission or a local governing body divides itself up into short-of-a-quorum subcommittees for the purposes of evading openness and notice requirements.

There are bills that would change all of that. SB45 would open all party caucuses. HB89 would open all meetings that include a quorum of lawmakers. HB111 would close the subcommittee loophole by applying the open meetings standard to any two governing body members assigned the task of considering an issue on behalf of the entire body.

All those bills appear stuck in the legislative process. That's too bad, but given the fact that lawmakers can't always be counted on to obey the laws as they stand, not surprising.