Betsy Ross, former chairwoman of the State Records Committee was honored for her 18 years of advocating for open government.
The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave Ross one of its annual Sunshine Awards at a ceremony in Fort Douglas’ Officers’ Club Thursday.
Ross served on the board, which hears appeals under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), since its creation. She first served as the board’s legal counsel and then as the state auditor’s representative on the board. She did three stints as chairwoman.
During her tenure on the board, Ross was regarded as its institutional memory and conscience, always ensuring that those who appeared before the board received a fair hearing. She also used the position to push for greater access to public records.
When the Legislature railroaded through HB477, the 2011 bill that gutted GRAMA, Ross stood on the side of open-government advocates. In an op-ed column in The Salt Lake Tribune, Ross pointed out the ignorance that drove the bill, sponsored by then-Rep. John Dougall. She also invited lawmakers to come to a records committee hearing to see that their concerns about GRAMA were unwarranted.
No legislators ever took her up on the invitation.
Ross left the committee at the end of 2012, when she was fired by Dougall, the incoming auditor. Dougall claimed that she was let go because she was not spending enough time with legislators as the auditor’s director of legal affairs.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank also received a Sunshine Award for making the department’s daily watch logs available online. Previously, the logs would state that no significant events occurred, even on the night officers responded to the home of Uta von Schwedler, a University of Utah researcher who was found dead in her bathtub.
Von Schwedler, John Wall, has since been charged with her murder.
SPJ also awarded a Black Hole award to the Utah Transit Authority for its refusal to release information about former UTA CEO John Inglish’s retirement package. The Black Hole Award recognizes entities that egregiously block access to public information.
Eventually, UTA released the information, showing that Inglish’s pension was higher than what former U.S. presidents are paid.
The Utah SPJ chapter also noted that UTA continues to withhold crime data from The Salt Lake Tribune, despite a November 2012 order from the Records Committee to provide the information. The UTA appealed the committee’s ruling to 3rd District Court.
“Both of these instances reflect what seems to be UTA’s general stance that if they stonewall long enough when information is requested that they don’t want to share, the media will just move on,” Linda Petersen, Utah Headliners FOI chair said. “But this is information the public has a right to know. The media should not have to fight for it on the public’s behalf. UTA’s Black Hole Award is well-deserved.”