Lorna Rosenstein is a GRAMA warrior. While lawmakers have recently complained about how Utah's records law may inconvenience or cost state or local governments, Rosenstein tells stories about how the government stalls requests, plays guessing games with requestors and raises access barriers by assessing research and copy costs.
Rosenstein heads the volunteer group Utah Water Watch. While government officials dispute many of her claims and conclusions about water fluoridation, no one can doubt her dogged determination to investigate the issue. Admittedly, she says her fight has been a politically charged one, but she tries to stick to one goal: watchdog how government has implemented fluoridation.
Through the years, she has gathered "mounds" of documents to find just how drinking water is fluoridated, where the concentrated fluoride that is added to drinking water comes from, and whether there is proper government oversight of the fluoridation process. Rosenstein, a Layton resident, opposed Davis County water fluoridation when it went on the ballot in 2004. The measure passed 51 to 40 percent.
Rosenstein recalls the obstacles she has faced in requesting government records. Once, an agency simply ignored her request. After appealing the nonresponse to the State Records Committee, the agency claimed it lost her request and then led Rosenstein on a document hunt by only answering "yes" or "no" to records requests.
Furthermore, she sent GRAMA requests to all water agencies in Davis County and got varied responses. One handed over document copies at no charge and another said she would have to pay for an employee search after a half-hour or no-fee help. A third sent her a letter saying it would cost $17,500 to find and turn over the requested records.
"That obviously made it impossible for a private citizen to cut that kind of a check," Rosenstein said.
Eventually, she found enough documents to piece together an interesting puzzle of how fluoride-containing chemicals end up in drinking water. What she found also disturbed her, including documents that she says show voters were misled before the 2004 Davis County vote.
On numerous occasions, Davis Health Department officials have countered such claims and maintain that fluoride is a safe and beneficial additive to drinking water, particularly to prevent tooth decay. Lewis Garrett, Davis County Health Department director, again defended the safety of fluoridation and noted that the level of fluoride in water has been reduced based on best practices supported by current research.
After scouring public records, Rosenstein also is concerned how the government oversees the use of fluoride chemicals added to water.
"What we have found in our research is that there is no chain of authority from the state level down to the water agencies. Everyone passes the buck on this particular chemical so no one is responsible from cradle to grave for how this is handled. That was only apparent after myriad GRAMA requests ," she said.
With her documentation, Rosenstein eventually got an audience before the Utah Water Development Commission, where she said that the particular chemical compound used to fluoridate water is a hazardous waste byproduct that contains additional contaminants, including arsenic and lead. She said, without GRAMA, she would have never been able to make such a case.
Of course not all agree with her conclusions. Garrett said there is a kernel of truth about contaminants in the concentrated fluoride used by most water agencies. However, when diluted properly in the water, those contaminants are barely measurable and do not occur more often than they would in normal ground water.
Although Garrett and Rosenstein debate and disagree, Garrett believes government ought to be transparent and he takes Rosenstein's advocacy in stride.
"Davis County takes the GRAMA law very seriously," Garrett said. He said he has provided many documents to Rosenstein upon request.
He agrees that the "price you pay for open government" includes providing information. However, it is disconcerting sometimes when people selectively quote from documents, he said.
As a GRAMA working group considers how to reform Utah's public-records law, it should not forget about citizen activists who add valuable information to public debate. Even if officials don't agree with their cause or conclusions, the public has a right to request information and question the process without government intransigence.
Joel Campbell is a former reporter and current associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. His reporting does not necessarily reflect the views of BYU. He writes on First Amendment and open-government issues for The Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.