Journalists have the memories of elephants. Our cerebral hard drives are stuffed with details of stories we covered, of images from big moments in our careers when we witnessed tragedy and triumph, of the minutiae of issues we labored to understand.
Some moments stick in the collective memory banks of Utah newsrooms. One sure to be there for a long, long time is from March 2011, the end of the legislative session, and HB477. Mention it to most any journalist in the state, and you likely will get a visceral, immediate reaction. That’s the bill legislators passed, and the governor immediately signed, that would have placed severe restrictions on public access to government records.
Two weeks later, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to repeal the law after getting shelled by angry constituents. Legislators had deliberately moved to keep debate about the proposed law to a minimum. They paid the price for their attempt at secrecy in a special session called to undo it all.
The lesson learned by Utah’s news media is that vigilance is key when it comes to our lawmakers and access to government information, and to protect the integrity of the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA as the law is referred to in newsrooms around the state.
Once again, the Utah Media Coalition, a group of news organizations, has joined together to be the collective watchdog of our lawmakers when it comes to proposed legislation that could threaten public access to government information.
The coalition was founded in 2006 by former editors Nancy Conway of The Salt Lake Tribune and John Hughes of the Deseret News. The GRAMA Watch team, first mobilized three years ago, includes newsroom editors, media attorneys and Capitol Hill lobbyists who scrutinize the potential effects of proposed legislation on transparency and access.
GRAMA Watch regularly issues ratings on proposed changes to Utah law. With feedback from the other members of the team, Salt Lake Tribune Deputy Editor and Editorial Page Editor Tim Fitzpatrick writes those reports, sending them to Utah’s other news media outlets to use as they see fit. The Tribune summarizes them in columns that appear on our op-ed page and in the Opinion section of sltrib.com.
We are careful to keep this process separate from coverage of the session. Our reporters at the Legislature, and their editors, don’t participate in GRAMA Watch or the Utah Media Coalition.
So far GRAMA Watch has weighed in on five bills in the 2014 session. We gave favorable ratings — or "bright lights," for their potential benefits to open government — to three bills: HR1, which would require that legislation be heard by a standing committee at the Legislature; HB227, which would make public the forms lawmakers file to direct legislative staff to prepare bills; and HB242, which would require government entities to provide free access to information that benefits the public.
Two bills received "lights out" ratings for their potential harm to openness: SB36, which would limit disclosure of voter information, and SB114, which would require canal companies to regularly assess the safety of their canals, but would keep some of that information protected.
Most, if not all, these bills will change throughout the session. Other bills affecting openness are certain to surface. The coalition will follow the action. Besides issuing report cards, group members meet personally with bill sponsors and testify at committee hearings for or against individual measures.
We at The Tribune, of course, have a dog in this fight. So does every other newsroom in Utah. GRAMA and open-meetings laws are powerful tools that our reporters use virtually every day.
But these laws don’t just benefit the news media. That fact was made loud and clear in 2011 with HB477. GRAMA belongs to the public, and many people use it in lots of ways, sometimes simply to find out what’s happening in their own neighborhoods. All residents of Utah benefit from it.
The Utah Media Coalition, through GRAMA Watch, continues to be dedicated to protecting and preserving that important principle — a government that answers to the people it serves.
Terry Orme is editor and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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