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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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Should open-government violators go to jail?

Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, recently called for more incentives for government employees to hand over public documents.

"Nobody ever got fired from a government job for not responding to a FOIA request fast enough," Dalgish told a Sunshine Week gathering at North Carolina State University.

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One North Carolina legislator, state Sen. Thom Goolsby, attempted to address that with Senate Bill 125. The bill would fine government employees who refuse to release public documents $200, or put them in jail for up to 20 days.

Goolsby, on his blog, said the intent is not to throw bureaucrats in jail but to remind them in no uncertain terms that records are presumed open and should be released upon request.

"Only an extremely dim-witted bureaucrat or politician will refuse to give out a government record or close a meeting, unless they are told to do so by their lawyer," the Wilmington Republican said.

The bill is currently sitting in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Should it pass, North Carolina would become the 16th state to implement a penalty for failing to fill an open record’s request. Utah is one of those states, making it a class B misdemeanor to deny a records request under the Government Records Access and Management Act.

But don’t expect to see pictures of bureaucrats who have denied government records requests on you local mug-shot website. Paul Murphy, the Utah Attorney General’s spokesman, said his office could not find any record of anyone being convicted under the statute.

A check of court records dating back to 1997 did not show any GRAMA-related convictions.

Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, said the most egregious violations of GRAMA should be prosecuted, but she said it is hard to say whether the criminal penalty would be enough to convince agencies to release records.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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