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Records expert: GRAMA strong but worth a review

Published March 30, 2011 10:02 am

Open records • Utah's law is among strongest in the nation, prof says.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Whenever Charles Davis speaks to government officials, business leaders, lawmakers and journalists, he holds out Utah's open-records law as one of the best in the nation.

"It is incredibly user-friendly," said Davis, a records expert and associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "What I like about the law is its clarity, precision of language and its relatively few exemptions."

The law is now up for review as the GRAMA Working Group gets to labor on 36 policy questions aimed at bringing Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act into the 21st century. The 25-member group meets for the second time Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Capitol.

On Friday, legislators repealed HB477, which most notably changed language that presumed records were closed unless someone requesting a document successfully argued otherwise. The short-lived law earned the state a Black Hole Award from the Society of Professional Journalists' national chapter. David Cuillier, chairman of SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee, said that, based on the revisions, he would knock Utah from 13th to 51st for transparency among states.

In fact, Davis said, there is "no real ranking out there" that looks at states' open-records laws from "soup to nuts," though two studies conducted in 2008 by the Better Government Association looked at aspects of them.

One study measured states' responsiveness to records requests, while the other looked at the strength of laws related to transparency, ethics and accountability.

In the first survey, the Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition — Davis was its executive director at the time — evaluated response time to records requests, appeals, expedited review, attorneys' fees and costs, and sanctions. The two groups ranked Utah among the top five states, while noting even the best states had "endemically weak" public-records laws. Utah received a score of 12.5 out of 16 points, good enough for a grade of "C."

Nebraska and New Jersey, the best states, earned 14 points for a "B." Thirty-eight states received an "F."

In the second study, the Better Government Association joined with Alper Services, an insurance-services company, to create an "integrity index" based on how states handled open records, whistle-blower protections, campaign finance, open meetings and conflicts of interest. All provide a good gauge of a state's responsiveness to its citizens, the association said.

New Jersey came out No. 1, followed by Rhode Island, Hawaii, Washington and Louisiana. Utah was ranked No. 36, its score deflated by a dismal 9.5 percent rating in "conflict of interest" protections. Utah's open-records score — 78 percent — placed it among the top four states in the nation.

Still, Davis views Utah's existing records law as praiseworthy.

"For years now, when I've been asked to give a good example of open-records law, Utah is always on my short list," Davis said, in addition to Texas, Florida, Connecticut and Georgia. That's based on how well the law works, the state's efforts to educate officials about it and emphasis placed on the act by public officials, he said.

"I've always gotten the sense [in Utah] that people considered accountability of fantastic importance," Davis said.

Utah's exemptions are narrowly tailored and specific, he said, unlike "amorphous" topical and hard-to-find exemptions made by many other states. Juvenile records are an example — many states' juvenile codes exempt such documents, while records laws are silent on the topic.

"GRAMA does not suffer from that infirmity," he said. "That is a huge benefit."

Florida's law, while still exemplary, is cumbersome because it includes 300 "microscopically precise" exemptions that list specific agencies and types of records that may be withheld.

Davis points out Texas as a state with, at least in one aspect, an even better records law.

In Texas, anyone denied a record can request an opinion from the state Attorney General's Office.

"That is a brilliant provision," Davis said, "one that does not come without cost, but I guarantee that provision has opened up a lot of access.

"They argue, and I think they are right, that it saves a lot of Texas municipalities out of open-records lawsuits," he said.

However, Davis said, critics may have a point in arguing that GRAMA needs to be tweaked to bring it into the digital age and address concerns about the privacy of constituents' communications to lawmakers.

"That really needs to be wrestled with," Davis said. But "there are exemptions under Utah law right now that address privacy, so before we exempt a whole category of communication, we need to think carefully." —

Getting to workon GRAMA

The GRAMA Working Group will meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday in Senate Building Room 210 at the Capitol. The meeting will also be covered live on the Internet.

> senatesite.com/home/gramagroup2