This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) received its final fatal blows at the hand of Utah's senators. House members had earlier had their turn. The governor is set to sign the death certificate this weekend. The law's last gasp came after months of secret poisoning, part of a plot hatched behind closed doors of Utah's Capitol.
Backers revealed the plot hastily only days before its untimely death at age 20. By the time its advocates saw the signs of illness, the law was already on life support.
In their final acts of execution, lawmakers exerted their will despite recent public opinion polls which showed strong support for GRAMA's openness and fee waivers. In the end, lawmakers feigned concern about the public's "right to know." They held two sham hearings. They said they had been open government champions, but all those champions shrunk in the face of political pressure. Shame on them. Others spoke strongly about the faulty process. They should be praised.
Instead of inviting expertise and citizen input, lawmakers launched a surprise offensive at the last possible moment. Curiously, some said previous GRAMA debates were all that was needed for this session's bill. The state deserves better. If lawmakers had been subject to such action, particularly if it involved federal policy, they would have been calling foul. But in their court it seems OK to throw around unchecked power with little statesmanship.
To cover their misdeeds, they made scapegoats of other people, primarily the hated news media. For example, they said journalists' requests for government information took too many government resources or that news media representatives would never talk about changing the law. The truth is media representatives spent a lot of time trying to decipher meeting agendas, memos, documents and task forces to find out the government's next move on transparency. The fact the media stood their ground and won some battles, particularly in recent years, apparently infuriated some.
During the past five years, GRAMA survived several attempts on its life. In addition, lawmakers also didn't like how the other branch of government, the judiciary, had been a strong proponent of open government, drawing on GRAMA's legislative intent. Yesterday, they stripped away GRAMA's intent and dismantled 20 years of case law. In the end, prompted by a secrecy lobby from within, drafters repackaged these failed measures, wrote how to undo judicial decisions and started twisting arms.
You won't see many lawmakers at GRAMA's wake, but there are mourners. Jeff Hunt, a media attorney who helped draft the original law and defended it in court and on Capitol Hill on many occasions, felt the loss.
"I felt like 20 years of my life went down the drain," he said.
But it is not over. Lawmakers promised that there would be study and discussion of the issues raised by the bill during interim study. It's not the best way to develop policy. Let's hope more thoughtful discussion will give GRAMA life again.
Joel Campbell is a former reporter and current associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. He is a lobbyist for the Utah Press Association. His reporting does not necessarily reflect the views of BYU. He writes on First Amendment and open-government issues for The Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.