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It may be a dubious honor, but Utah's open-records fight has become a battle cry for open-government activists across the nation.
The Washington-based Sunlight Foundation delivered a petition Friday at the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse signed by thousands of open-government activists to governors attending the National Governors Association meetings here.
They want to raise the profile of open government in every state. That's important because it has become popular for politicians to promise open government on the campaign trail and then abandon the idea once in office.
Gabriela Schneider, the group's communications director, said it was ironic that Salt Lake City is the site of the petition delivery since Utah lawmakers enacted and then rescinded HB477, which would have thrown up major roadblocks to government-records access. Gov. Gary Herbert is featured among the group's poster children for open-government abuse, and images from HB477 protests are part of a video call to action.
"Over the last few months, Sunlight has observed a disturbing trend of states rolling back transparency of government information, clouding the ability of the public to see what their government and its officials are doing," Schneider said,
Like the Sunlight Foundation, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also noted several governors who didn't keep their campaign promises for open government. Included on the list are governors from Wisconsin, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker's campaign website said, "Government is spending your money, and you have a right to know when, where and how much." But Walker has locked up public records and turned down media interview requests.
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley's campaign website claimed that "From day one, she will demand accountability and reform across government." Not too long after taking office, Haley met privately with the key lawmakers who are members of an important budget board, which is required to meet in open.
According to the Reporters Committee, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is the leading candidate for an anti-transparency award. Scott has limited journalist access to news conferences and public events, told agency heads to not talk to reporters, delayed responses to public-record requests and hand-picked the reporters he wanted to cover certain events. He also started charging fees for public records requested from his office.
Ironically, on the campaign trail Scott attacked his opponent for the Republican nomination for refusing to release campaign donor names. "Without transparency, there is no accountability," he said at the time. A campaign ad said in a campaign that by choosing him, the people of Florida would be voting for someone who "demands accountability."
Tennessee's Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed an executive order on his first day of office that limited the information that he and his senior staff have to share about personal income. The result was that top state leaders only had to disclose sources of their income and not how much they actually make, according to the Tennessee Report.
Thank goodness Utah still has a watchdog press, which along with citizen efforts, can bring abuse to light and expose wrongheaded policy. One day, it would also be nice if Utah were honored for advancing open government rather than obstructing it.
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 email@example.com.