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2013 Legislature: Not worst on open-government issues, but could have done better

Published April 10, 2013 8:37 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If the 2011 Utah State Legislature, which railroaded HB477 through, was regarded as the worst for access to public records, 2013 was a significant improvement.

"In the end, it was good for open government," said Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

One noticeable difference: Legislators were more willing to consult with the Utah Media Coalition — which includes The Salt Lake Tribune and other Utah media outlets — on open-government bills. In contrast, HB477, which gutted the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), was written in closed-door meetings and rushed through committee meetings in the waning days of the Legislature.

"I never saw so much effort by the Legislature to include the media," Petersen said. "They still have the notion that open government is about media access." Petersen said open government is for all Utahns, and journalists use it as representatives of the public.

But lawmakers could have done better, as they allowed some bills to pass that restricted access to public records such as Utah Transit Authority trip data and jail booking photos.

"I'll give them an A-minus or a B-plus," said Joel Campbell, associate professor of print journalism at Brigham Young University. "They rejected some bills that would have closed access to government records and passed bills that gave access."

On the plus side, legislators passed SB77, Sen. Deidre Henderson's bill requiring recordings and written minutes of public meetings to be posted on the state's public meeting notice website. Campbell said the Spanish Fork Republican's bill puts the meeting records together in one place, rather than having people looking all over the Internet for different websites.

Henderson's other open-government bill, SB283, is one that, Campbell says, looks good on the surface. It directs the state's Transparency Advisory Board to look at making more public records available on the state's Transparency website.

But, Campbell noted the details give cause for concern. The board's final recommendations have to be approved by the Legislature, a body Campbell said has been too willing to close access to public records.

SB94, Sen. Curt Bramble's open-government bill creates an online repository lawmakers can place email into, so the public can see it without having to file a GRAMA request. It also takes away the state auditor's seat on the State Records Committee, making it a public seat.

Campbell said the email repository looks good on paper, until one realizes that participation in it is voluntary. He doesn't see too many legislators willing to contribute to it if left to their own devices.

And the records-committee provision is a point of concern for Campbell and others. In December, incoming State Auditor John Dougall — who sponsored HB477 when he was in the Legislature — fired Betsy Ross, the auditor's representative on the committee.

Ross was an opponent to HB477 and regarded as a champion of open government.

The Legislature did shoot down HB307, Rep. Brian Greene's proposal to strip birthdates off public records such as voter rolls and court records. Greene, a Pleasant Grove Republican, claimed the bill was necessary to protect Utahns from identity theft and elder abuse, even though critics — including the leaders of the state Democratic and Republican parties — pointed out that there is no case where someone used public records to commit identity theft.

But the Legislature also failed to pass Rep. Kraig Powell's HB207, which would have required public entities to post meeting notices three days before a meeting. Campbell said that would have provided people with more information on what public entities are doing, but it was watered down at the request of the Utah League of Cities and Towns on the grounds that it could open cities to lawsuits if someone questioned whether any last-minute agenda items were truly "unforseen."

Campbell and Petersen noted a few bills restricting public access did get through.

SB12, sponsored by Vernal Republican Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, makes Utah Transit Authority trip data a protected record. Van Tassell said it would bar people from using GRAMA to find out if their spouse is cheating on them by using UTA to visit a paramour.

Another bill was HB408, Rep. Paul Ray's bill requiring people who want copies of mug shots to sign a statement swearing that they won't post the pictures on websites that charge people to remove them. The Clearfield Republican said it was necessary to protect people who had been arrested and either not charged or had the case dismissed from being haunted by the mug shot.

Campbell said those bills highlight the need for a committee with expertise in open-government issues to review bills and make recommendations.