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Utah's Right to Know
Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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Records mediation will remain voluntary for now

For now, people who are not satisfied with their records requests can choose whether to seek mediation with the state ombudsman.

During a recent meeting, the State Records Committee agreed to keep meetings with the state Records Ombudsman voluntary and see how that works.

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Outgoing Committee Chairwoman Betsy Ross discussed the possibility of requiring mediation before a records committee hearing.

"As a lawyer, I believe it is better for the parties to come to a solution than to have a solution forced upon them by a judge," Ross said before the meeting. "They’re going to be happier about it."

Currently, the committee requires a pre-hearing meeting between the chair, representatives of the agency holding the record and the person requesting the records to try to avoid a hearing or at least narrow the issues the committee will hear. Since the middle of this year, people have the option of also meeting with the records ombudsman to settle the dispute. In her first report, ombudsman Rosemary Cundiff stated she had mediated about 10 cases.

Cundiff said that people who just want records find that mediation works well. But there are people who want a precedent-setting decision from the records committee, "and I cannot give them that."

Ross said that while she and Cundiff try to remain independent, it does create some confusion to have people go through two levels of intervention before going into the committee.

Paul Tonks, the deputy attorney general assigned to the committee, said the current regimen also puts the committee head in the somewhat awkward position of knowing things about a case that the rest of the committee does not. He noted that in a recent appeal involving The Salt Lake Tribune and the Utah Transit Authority, Ross challenged the UTA on a statement based on what she had learned during the pre-hearing meeting.

But making mediation with Cundiff mandatory would require changing the law.

Patricia Smith-Mansfield suggested keeping the mediation option in place, but not doing the pre-hearing meeting and see how that works out.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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