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There will be no sweeping overhaul, but instead a few tweaks, some clarifications and a recognition that Utah's open-records law is pretty great after all.
That's the outcome of the GRAMA Working Group, which on Wednesday finished a three-month effort to review the state's Government Records Access and Management Act and suggest ways to make it better. The group left unresolved some issues at the heart of the records debate: how to deal with text messages and other new technologies, and what protections, if any, to give constituent email.
But it did come up with other recommendations to make the law more efficient, better understood and to potentially avoid some contentious disputes that are the bane of both those seeking records and government employees filling requests. At the top of the list: Get government entities to make more records that are clearly public available at no cost online; require training on what the law is and how it works; and take steps to ensure uniformity in process and fees across the state.
Lane Beattie, a former lawmaker who chaired the group, hopes to meet with Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders within the next month to pass along the group's recommendations for making the act work better for citizens and public officials.
"There have been some strong recommendations come forward from each of the groups that we'll follow up on that will make GRAMA more usable, will make it more meaningful, will clarify records across the entire state of Utah so access can be there without a [records request]," Beattie said. "We hope that can be followed up with and encouraged across the board so that they can just be easily found. … There are still points that need to be clarified and we will ask the Legislature to do that."
There was consensus among the group that more education about the law is needed for records clerks, lawmakers and the public alike.
"There is so much disinformation, misinformation and misunderstanding of what the GRAMA law actually means," said Rep. Holly Richardson, R-Highland. "I think the consensus is we do need some more training, that there needs to be some uniformity from all political entities, so whether it's the Legislature to city councils to school boards, that everybody has a solid idea on what's expected and what's coming forward from the GRAMA law."
The group also agreed the act's intent language should be retained and that its wording favoring access when competing interests are equal should be incorporated into other sections of the law. The balancing test described within the statute requires the interest in access to be equal to or outweigh the interest in restricting access.
"As we talked about that, we decided that the best thing to do would be to preserve the intent language, because that's the guiding principle of GRAMA and we need to strengthen the statute to make it consistent with [a] move toward transparency," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who was on the subcommittee that "recommended the statute be amended to be consistent with the intent language, not the other way around."
Beattie acknowledged that the group's discussions highlighted the difficult issues surrounding privacy, both of public officials and their constituents. For public officials, it was helpful to learn that their "private information is not public, that they don't have to disclose that."
Constituent email will undoubtedly be a subject of further discussion as the Legislature looks over the working group's recommendations.
"Everything in my life is out there on Facebook and Twitter," Richardson said. "And yet, at the same time I understand there is a need for some privacy and also for the constituents I serve that they have the ability and confidence to contact me and feel that the information they share can stay private."
As for text messages, Richardson said, "I think we are clear that the status quo is something that is appropriate and we are okay with the way it is."
Said Richardson: "There are still a number of people who've said to me 'Do you just expect that this is … just to make people happy and nothing is going to come of it?' In reality, I think that something good did come of it. We were able to sit down and we were able to have some conversations that were really valid and valuable."
But only time will tell how seriously its work is received, said Jesse Stay, a social-media expert and working-group member.
"After the working group is finished, it won't matter what we say unless our legislators are able to truly take the advice we've given and apply it wisely," he said.
GRAMA Working Group Recommendations:
Cost and timeliness • http://bit.ly/mJKU6O
Simplification • http://bit.ly/mPux69
Emerging Technology • http://bit.ly/mbePi5
Statutory Definitions • http://bit.ly/jhyFqU