The State Records Committee’s first ruling Thursday was bittersweet for board members and came without hearing a word of testimony.
The seven-member panel honored its departing chairwoman with a formal order recognizing Betsy Ross for her 18 years on the committee, a stint spanning the history of Utah’s current open-records law.
The unanimous decree praised Ross as “the conscience of the committee” for her defense of public access to government records, behind-the-scenes mediation of often-bitter records-access disputes and opposition over the years to attempts by various agencies at squelching access to records through unwarranted fees.
Ross, who was the state auditor’s representative on the committee, left at the end of 2012 when she was “fired” from her job as the auditor’s director of legislative and government affairs by incoming auditor John Dougall. Her tenure coincided with almost the entire life of the Government Records Access and Management Act, known as GRAMA, including the Legislature’s 2011 attempt to gut the law.
During that time — which included three two-year stints as the panel’s chairwoman — Ross heard hundreds of appeals from residents, government gadflies and journalists seeking public records.
“[Ross] was our institutional memory,” said Lex Hemphill, who succeeded Ross as the committee’s chairman in January. Hemphill said Ross’ announcement in December that she was not only stepping down as chairwoman but leaving the committee came as a bombshell.
Aside from her knowledge of GRAMA, Ross also brought compassion for people who came before the board, he said.
Joel Campbell, an associate professor of print journalism at Brigham Young University, agreed. He said Ross treated all who came to the committee fairly.
“There were a couple times I was before the board and the vote didn’t go my way,” Campbell recalled, “But she let us know that her hands were tied by the law.”
Ross said her goal also was to treat every party bringing a case before the board with respect. “They may not have always got the decision they felt they deserved,’’ she said, “but they felt they were heard.”
Ross was aboard from the inception of the State Records Committee, when it was reorganized after GRAMA’s adoption in 1992. Then, the New Orleans native was an assistant attorney general serving as the committee’s legal counsel.
When she moved over to the auditor’s office, she was appointed to serve as the auditor’s designee in 1994.
In an interview, Ross said she was impressed with the resilience of GRAMA, Utah’s primary tool for regulating what government records are public and the processes for accessing them. It has held up well, she said, in the face of rapidly changing information technology.
“There’s been some evolution,” Ross said, “but the original drafters did an excellent job in crafting a statute that could stand the test of time.”
Ross voiced opposition in 2011 to HB477, a bill sponsored by Dougall that, among other things, reversed GRAMA’s presumption that most government records were open. The legislation passed quickly in the final weeks of the 2011 legislative session, only to be reversed by lawmakers in the face of widespread public criticism.
“I was quite disappointed by how HB477 came to be, and how it was based on a lack of information and misunderstanding,” Ross said Thursday.
But Ross would not say if her opposition to HB477 cost her the committee position. She said Dougall fired her without talking to her.
Dougall, however, bristled at Ross’ saying she was “fired.” He alleged she was let go because she did not do a better job at making herself more familiar to legislators during her committee tenure.
“I was pressed to find anyone in the Legislature who knew her,” Dougall said. “I didn’t need someone who didn’t know the Legislature being one of my attorneys.”
Dougall is proposing to turn the auditor’s position on the records committee into a public seat filled by the governor, to give his office the freedom to audit the committee. His proposal is part of SB94, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and currently being debated by the Utah Legislature.
While let go from her job with Dougall’s office, Ross said she still retains a position as director of legislative and government affairs for the state Treasurer.