Public records

Published February 12, 2009 6:00 pm
HB122 would hide documents
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, along with legislators doing his bidding, are thumbing their noses at ordinary Utah citizens by proposing to hide from public scrutiny reams of government records that today are open by virtue of the state's open-records law.

This isn't the first time that the Legislature has sought to emasculate the Government Records Access and Management Act, the statute that enables the public to obtain copies of government records. The carefully crafted law strikes a balance between two competing values: the public's right to know and the need for government to operate efficiently.

Under GRAMA, this balance has allowed government officials, the State Records Committee and the courts to determine if a record should be made public, with the onus on government to make a compelling argument for closure. Indeed, GRAMA is designed to maintain the system of checks and balances essential to a free society.

House Bill 122 is sponsored by Rep. Douglas C. Aagard, R-Kaysville, and by Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo. It is an attempt to subvert that system and the public's interest in holding government accountable. The bill would jettison GRAMA's balancing test for records of a host of criminal, civil and administrative investigations and proceedings, including employee disciplinary records. It adds "anticipated" litigation -- an umbrella ripe for abuse -- to this shroud of secrecy.

Shurtleff and others have variously defended the bill as necessary to protect attorney-client privilege and attorney work product. Or to prevent disclosure of records relating to current investigations. Or to prevent the State Records Committee and the judiciary from overruling government claims that a document should not be public -- which is precisely the intended oversight function of the law. Or to limit the number of records requests. All of these concerns are addressed in the existing law.

News reporters make frequent GRAMA requests for documents that shed light on the doings of government and its employees. These revelations -- such as the recent allegations of sexual harassment in Salt Lake County's dysfunctional planning department -- protect the public's interest in ethical, law-abiding government.

GRAMA, crafted by many stakeholders -- government and records seekers alike -- helps keep the people in control of government. HB122 would do the opposite, and legislators should reject it.

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