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Four House members from southern Utah, including former House Speaker David Clark, are calling on Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature to repeal a bill restricting public access to government records.
"I think we should repeal this. I think it should happen in April," Clark said Friday in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. "It's very clear to me the best thing right now would be to start over."
Clark, R-Santa Clara, said the repeal ought to happen with commitments from all sides to move forward with a plan to proceed. But, he said, the way in which it passed the Legislature in just a few days did not give such a contentious bill enough time to be fully vetted.
Clark joined Reps. Brad Last, R-Hurricane; Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City; and Don Ipson, R-St. George, in a statement stating that HB477 was meant to keep a legislator's personal communications private while making everything else public.
"Unfortunately, the Legislature has not done a very good job of communicating this message to the public," the statement said. "Because of this, we feel that it is in everyone's best interests that the Legislature reconsider its actions on HB477 and quickly move to discuss legislation to supersede HB477."
If it isn't changed, the law will exempt text messages, instant messages and video chats from public-records laws; will require a person filing a request to pay attorney fees; and will wipe out a presumption that government records should be public.
The four blamed the media for fanning the flames of controversy to a point that it has damaged public trust in government.
"The firestorm created by the media and others has resulted in a very contentious situation. It has come to the point that friends, neighbors and supporters do not understand the Legislature's position, resulting in damage to personal relationships as well as distrust in the public process."
The legislators endorsed a plan to repeal the bill first, then move forward with a reworking of state records law.
"Hopefully, this will bring this battle to an end," they wrote, and allow parties to negotiate a reasonable solution.
Clark said he raised specific concerns about the bill with House leaders and was assured that the Senate would address them, but they were not changed, and the bill went to the governor.
"I regret it now, but I kind of voted with the team, understanding that was how it would take place," Clark said. "This was fraught with trouble from the beginning."
All four of the southern Utah lawmakers voted for the records bill the first time the House considered it. When it came back to the House with a delayed implementation date of July 1, Clark spoke against the bill, and both he and Ipson voted against it. Last and Vickers voted for it.
The four House members join Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, who called for the repeal of the records bill earlier this week.
The records bill will not take effect until July 1, under a deal struck between legislative leaders and Herbert. In the meantime, a task force of lawmakers and the public will discuss issues related to Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act with plans to call a special legislative session in June to revise HB477.
"[The representatives' proposal] sounds exactly like what the governor has recommended take place. … Great minds think alike," said the governor's spokeswoman, Ally Isom. "I think the timing may be the only issue there."
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, reiterated her statement that HB477 will not survive to its July 1 enactment date.
"HB477 will not exist," she said. "The working group is about coming up with a new GRAMA bill, and that is what we'll address in the special session [in June]."
She said members of the working group will be announced on Monday, and she hopes the group will have its first meeting next week.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, said earlier this week that he supported HB477 because he felt there was an implicit threat that bills important to him would not pass if he did not. He called the bill an "abomination."
And a group has begun the process of collecting 97,000 signatures from across the state to put a referendum on the ballot to repeal HB477. The group's website is http://www.savegrama.org.
HB477 statement by southern Utah Republican Reps. David Clark, Brad Last, Evan Vickers and Don Ipson
"We are all strong believers in both transparency in government and the public servant's right to a private life. As we read HB477 and discussed it with the sponsor as well as other colleagues, we understood that the intention of the bill was to protect a legislator's business and personal communications while making everything else available to the public. This seemed fair and we supported that concept. When we explain this to constituents one-on-one, they understand and agree. Unfortunately, the Legislature has not done a very good job of communicating this message to the public. The firestorm created by the media and others has resulted in a very contentious situation. It has come to the point that friends, neighbors and supporters do not understand the Legislature's position, resulting in damage to personal relationships as well as distrust in the public process.
"If we as a Legislature could have done a better job of communicating our arguments for this legislation, it probably would have been more palatable. Regrettably, that hasn't been the case. Because of this, we feel that it is in everyone's best interests that the Legislature reconsider its actions on HB477 and quickly move to discuss legislation to supersede HB477. Hopefully this will bring this battle to an end and then allow the Legislature, the Governor's Office, the media and the public to sit down and discuss how the current law can be amended to achieve the goals of protecting privacy but still allowing for public access to government documents and communication."