People usually think of open government laws such as Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) , as tools for journalists.
Years ago, when discussing how a local planning commission in Utah flouted the spirit of the open meetings act during a tour of a controversial animal rendering plant, someone told me that was not an issue that concerned the public. Open government laws, he claimed, were only for reporters.
He was wrong.
While journalists use the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), GRAMA and the open meetings act to hold elected officials and government agencies accountable, the laws were meant for the general public. Anyone can use those laws to see how government works, and to call bureaucrats and elected officials out when it doesn’t.
The public can also make use of the fee waiver in GRAMA. While most people may think only journalists can get public documents for free, the law clearly states that fees may be waived if a requester can show he or she is acting in the public good. For example, suppose you want to find out about that factory with the big smokestack that’s being built a couple blocks from your home, and you want to share what you find at the homeowners’ association meeting. That is considered acting in the public interest.
Fortunately, Utahns are starting to get it.
Last year, when the Utah State Legislature attempted to gut GRAMA with the since-repealed HB477, many of the people at the barricades fighting the Legislature were members of the public. While journalists got the word out, it was the public outrage at losing access to records that forced lawmakers to back down.
And Rosemary Cundiff, the state’s records ombudsman, reports that most of the calls with questions on GRAMA she fielded from requesters so far came from the public.
But too often, we don’t hear how the public uses GRAMA or FOIA. But I want to change that. I want to highlight some of the ways average Utahns are exercising their right to know about their government.
If you’d like to share your story with me for this blog, send me an email at dmeyers@sltrib, or call me at 801-448-6106.