This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
In the wake of the contentious passage of HB477, Gov. Gary Herbert has promised a deliberative process. Over the next 90 days, lawmakers, media and citizens have been told they will be given fair consideration before the law is reconsidered in a June special session. Whatever shape that process takes, here are five suggestions to get the discussion started:
1. Use technology to solve issues • In the past, Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, HB477's sponsor, has been a leader in using technology to help solve open-government issues. For example, he helped sponsor a bill that created the Utah Public Notices website. The site has automated the posting of public meeting notices of agencies throughout the state.
Similarly, one need look no further than the U.S. Congress to see a system that helps classify and protect e-mails. Citizens send e-mails to representatives and senators through an online interface that allows the sender to decide whether the e-mail involves a personal request or a statement about public policy. Programmers could refine such an interface to help filter private and public messages to Utah lawmakers.
2. Truly understand what is already in the law • Many legislators feeling voters' regret after the hurry-up passage of HB477 said they simply trusted the talking points delivered by legislative leadership, including exaggerated claims about privacy. Legislators need to understand the protections they have and use them. To be sure, education and training of citizens, media and lawmakers could go a long way toward solving most of the issues raised by HB477. In particular, training both requesters and responders about how to properly narrow requests would also be valuable in the discussion. There is common ground here to address voluminous requests.
3. Focus on content, rather than platform • Writing in The Tribune, Betsy Ross, chairwoman of the state Records Committee, said one of GRAMA's hallmarks is its focus on message content, not the delivery mechanism. She wrote, "The drafters of GRAMA understood that the pace of technology would quickly outstrip current forms of communication and so opted in favor of listing examples, but making clear that the form was not a factor in deciding if a communication was a record that could be requested under GRAMA." If content is about public policy and influence on legislators, that should be the bright line that defines what is public or not.
4 . Re-examine the policy about making text messages off limits • Based upon this focus on content, a discussion is needed about the use of electronic devices, particularly during public meetings. Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, said 31 states ban or limit the use of electronic devices on the floors of House and Senate chambers, according to The Associated Press. A scuttled bill sponsored by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, would have restricted text messages or other kinds of communication during public meetings. Let's take a second look at that bill.
5. Base decisions on real data • During the heated GRAMA debate during the past, much of the rhetoric was driven by anecdotes when GRAMA was claimed to be abused. This discussion needs real data, not extreme anecdotes. The discussion also needs to examine policies that represent best practices from other states.
Joel Campbell is a former reporter and current associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. 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.