At this time last year when national groups celebrated Sunshine Week, which recognizes open government or "sunshine" laws, Utah was counted among those states turning back the clock on open government. For the ill-conceived HB477, the state received a national Black Hole Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Fast forward to this year's Sunshine Week and Utah's GRAMA Watch giving a "Shining Light" Award to Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, praising him for sponsoring SB177. The bill included amendments agreed to by a post-legislative working group to improve the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).
The bill also includes provisions that define that personal records of lawmakers are not public records and strengthens a test that gives the public interest more weight in decisions to open public records.
The passage of SB177 headlined a nearly benign session for open government, but most of the bills that would have turned up the light in dark corners of Utah government got little attention. Here are final transparency grades for the 2012 Utah Legislature:
HB491 (Letter grade: A) • This bill opens up the appointment process when elected officials leave office early. Some city councils had interpreted the existing law to mean they simply listened to potential midterm replacement candidates in an open session and did not require more debate or transparency with their discussion.
HB304 (A) • In this case, the top grade is for not passing a bill that would have restricted birth dates of voters on the voter registration records. A substitute would have allowed voters to request that their birth dates be protected. Such opt-out schemes for public records have proven problematic and wouldn't have solved the primary reasons for access to these records: to check voter identities and deter voter fraud.
SB137 (A) • This is one in a series of bills over the past few years that requires local and state government agencies to post budget information on the state's transparency website. Any effort to expand and strengthen this website is good news for taxpayers.
HB128 (A-) • This gives open-meeting requirements to school community councils, including requirements for notices, agendas and minutes. It gets an A- because it exempts school community councils from the Open Meetings Act and applies less rigorous requirements. The creation of a separate system for school councils is at once heartening but troubling if other groups use it to justify their own exclusion from the Open Meetings Act. Let's hope this is a rare exception.
SB18 (B) • This bill makes email addresses on voter registration records "private." While not improving access to voter registration records, it seemed to be a reasonable compromise between privacy and public access.
HB187 (D) • Invokes criminal penalties if people record images or sounds of an agricultural operation on private property. While the sponsor made changes to accommodate concerns from media and free press advocates, it still represents a troubling trend over the last few years of the agriculture lobby nationally and locally to attempt to buffer itself from whistle blowers and investigations.
HB337 (A for the House and F for the Senate) • This bill proposed creating a government website where public records from entities across the state would be cataloged and made available to the public. It got a strong endorsement in the House with a 70-1 vote, but it never saw the light of day in the Senate.
HB89, SB45 (F) • Just as they treated a long line of similar bills before them, Republican lawmakers can't stand the public actually watching them in what might be their most contentious yet most insightful moments of lawmaking inside party caucuses. Because of the overwhelming GOP control over both legislative chambers, the public continues to be robbed of opportunities to really understand and weigh their legislators' actions as they caucus. It was out of such black holes that Utah's HB477 and controversial redistricting plans were conceived, debated and essentially approved beyond the public's view.
No matter how much lawmakers say they champion and support transparency, as long as caucuses remain closed, the public will never truly believe Utah's representatives and senators practice what they preach.
Joel Campbell is an associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. His views do not represent those of BYU. He writes on First Amendment and open-government issues for The Tribune. He can be reached atÂ firstname.lastname@example.org.