Out of the ashes of the rancorous HB477 debate on revamping Utah’s open records laws, the state has named its first records ombudsman and created a hotline to answer Utahns’ questions about which government documents are public, which are secret, and how to access the ones that should be open.
Rosemary Cundiff, head of the records management section at state Archives and newly designated ombudsman, was already on the job and answering the hotline Thursday.
“I’ve taken some requests already,” she told The Tribune. She even had her first mediation session scheduled.
That’s part of her new assignment — under a law that officially kicks in Monday: helping mediate disputes between people seeking records and government agencies that hold them.
Cundiff plans to invite parties locked in such impasses into a room together and see if things can’t be worked out before their cases end up in court or before the State Records Committee.
“Sometimes things work out just by people understanding the law … sometimes people meet halfway,” Cundiff said. “There are so many gray areas in the [Government Records Access and Management Act] law.”
Under the new law (SB177), the ombudsman is supposed to be someone familiar with GRAMA and is to serve as a resource for those seeking records or responding to a request.
Cundiff seems a good fit. A 12-year employee of state Archives, she has, for the past three years, overseen the records management section. Part of her job is training records managers throughout Utah — from state agencies to city offices about GRAMA, records-keeping and records retention requirements and schedules.
Her new ombudsman role is in addition to, not in place of, her other duties.
She won’t comment on whether that part of the job will swamp her, but acknowledges receiving several citizen inquiries even before her appointment was announced Thursday — with callers hearing about her through word of mouth.
State Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and the sponsor of SB177, said the idea for an ombudsman came up in the GRAMA working group created after what he describes as the “HB477 debacle” and the subsequent attempt to “regain some public confidence in the area of public records and such.”
SB177 was a consensus measure aimed at streamlining and strengthening the open-records law. That was in stark contrast to HB477 — GRAMA-gutting legislation that was rammed through the 2011 Legislature, then unceremoniously repealed in reaction to public outcry.
“The reality is that the ombudsman, that post, was created so citizens have a readily available place so they can ask questions and have some help to navigate” GRAMA issues, said Bramble. “I think it’s going to be a real benefit.”
Most of the records requests — he estimates it at 95 percent — are coming from citizens, not the news media or government activists, says Bramble. And he says public officials have an obligation to make sure government is open and responsive.
“As a public official, I’d better be ready to embrace transparency or I should be ready to conclude my public service.”
Bramble says the ombudsman legislation deliberately steered away from creating a new full-time position so that cost arguments couldn’t be used to trip it up. But he said state leaders will monitor the program’s workload and effectiveness and, if needed, revisit its structure in the future.
Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, described herself as cautiously optimistic about the ombudsman’s effect on government openness.
“I think it’s a good idea … a step in the right direction for the public. I know from my own experience, submitting GRAMA requests can be frustrating,” said Martindale, whose nonprofit group participated in the debate during and following the “horrible” HB477 blowup.
If the ombudsman provides answers and assistance, she believes the program will be a success — and may deserve to be expanded in the future.
“If it’s just someone to say, ‘Golly, that’s too bad’ ” when citizens feel they’re being stonewalled by the government, Martindale said, “then it’s not really solving the issue.”
A friend of GRAMA
What • The state has created a new position of government records ombudsman to provide advise and assistance to citizens seeking government records — and to agencies responding to such requests.
Who • Rosemary Cundiff has been given the assignment and says she’ll do her best to help both sides navigate the Government Records Access and Management Act and resolve disputes through negotiation and discussion.
How • A new GRAMA hotline has been established at 801-531-3858. Or, submit a question or request online at http://archives.utah.gov/recordsmanagement/forms/ombudsman.html.