Editor's column: Closing the door on open-records debate
When the Utah Legislature considers a bill affecting health care, it is safe to assume that medical and insurance professionals are part of the process of drafting the proposed law.
You would expect the same for any legislation affecting a specific segment of society. Police are consulted in writing law enforcement bills; business owners in the crafting of laws affecting their livelihoods; educators when it comes to schools.
Those constituents might not agree with the proposals or the outcome, but they get their say. Throughout the evolution of Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's controversial immigration bill, he has stood before many different parties, presented and defended his bill, and heard their feedback, much of it vehement opposition.
This process was noticeably absent in legislation unveiled and passed by both houses that would recast important parts of Utah's open records laws, the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA. These changes affect every citizen in general and the news media in particular. If signed by the governor, the bill would dramatically increase the costs of obtaining government documents, and greatly restrict the kinds of information available to the public. It's a big deal.
Did members of the public get any say? Did news organizations the targets of the changes have their input? It is obvious that lawmakers went out of their way to avoid scrutiny and feedback. They didn't want to hear from us. Or from you.
There are two troubling ironies with this. The first is obvious: A bill involving public access to government records is rushed and hushed through the process by the men and women who make law in Utah.
What's more, they are trying to create a special class for themselves by keeping their correspondence with constituents secret.
The second irony involves a sad comparison with how GRAMA came about in the first place. Two decades ago, a broad coalition met regularly, worked hard and hashed out a complicated law that would manage access to government records.
Under the direction of then-Rep. Marty Stephens, the group included journalists, attorneys, law enforcement professionals, educators and state, county and municipal government officials the stakeholders. Stephens put it before the 1992 Legislature, it became law, and ever since has been a reliable, if imperfect, guide to the public's window into our government.
The process to amend the law was far different two perfunctory committee meetings in which every person who spoke was opposed to the bill. Then quick votes to pass out of committee.
So what do we, the big bad news media, do with GRAMA? We use it to get important details about criminal activities. We use it to investigate undue influence on government officials. We use it to scrutinize governing processes. We use it to report information that we believe the public wants and deserves to know.
In the past year we used the law to obtain a letter written by bomber Mark Hofmann to the state board of pardons. The letter gave insight to his motivations for committing one of the most notorious crimes in state history. A year earlier, we used GRAMA to obtain reports on police use of Tasers in the wake of the death of a mentally ill man whom police used a stun gun on in southern Utah.
Utah's open records laws were essential in shedding light on the Utah Department of Transportation payment of $13 million to a contractor who lost the bid on rebuilding I-15 through Utah County. Even the governor was surprised to learn that taxpayers paid millions for nothing.
We have a website http://www.utahsright.com that offers reams of public information in searchable databases. The site includes government salaries, crime statistics, restaurant inspection reports, real estate prices, school test scores and much more. This is information craved by the public. The proof: 15.6 million page views in the last 12 months.
Lawmakers say the news media don't pay enough for the records we seek. Could have fooled us. We paid hundreds of dollars to obtain those Taser reports. Â MediaOne, our partner that supports UtahsRight, spends $3,000 each year acquiring documents for the site.
Whenever we seek information, we go into the process accepting that we will pay a fair price for the work it takes to gather it, and we accept the fact that some data should be kept private and be redacted. Â We don't go on fishing expeditions. We work with the public information officers at the government offices, and we feel that, for the most part, we have good, professional relationships with them.
On Thursday, when the House passed the bill to change GRAMA, lawmakers scolded the news media for using the law to dig up embarrassing information on elected officials. If there is something to be embarrassed about, the public deserves to know.
Terry Orme is a managing editor at The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.