What a difference a year, and a whole lot of work by a great many people, can make.
Last year about this time, most Utah media organizations, and a great many of our readers, listeners and viewers, were in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out political battle with members of the Utah Legislature. The issue was HB477, a stealth measure that leapt out in the closing days of the session and tore the heart out of the state's open-records act.
The response was both a concerted campaign by the professionals in the Utah Media Coalition (including The Salt Lake Tribune) and a popular outcry by a great many others, all urging that the law be repealed. In less than a month, it was.
In the 12 months since, confrontation was replaced by collaboration, and attempts at meat-axe lawmaking were set aside for some statesman-like leadership. First a state-appointed working group was assembled to examine the alleged shortcomings of the Government Records Access and Management Act and to propose improvements. That group's work, plus a lot more research and outreach, became the basis for this year's SB177, sponsored and shepherded through the Legislature by Sen. Curt Bramble, a Provo Republican.
That bill, passed with minimal controversy and without a dissenting vote in either the House or the Senate, has earned Bramble the Media Coalition's 2012 Shining Light Award.
SB177 will strengthen Utah's commitment to open government, making it clear that records are presumed to be open absent limited circumstances. And it will make the law easier for citizens to grasp and for government officials to follow, by creating the position of an open-records ombudsman, who will train public officials on their responsibilities and help individuals understand their rights.
Other measures in the recent legislative session will also improve transparency. SB137 requires public agencies that are set up to serve more than one local government to post their financial data on the state's transparency website. And HB491 requires that cities and school districts acting to fill a vacancy in an elected position hold interviews of the candidates for those spots in public.
Not all was for the best. Lawmakers passed HB187, the "Ag-Gag" bill, which would criminalize unauthorized recording of activities on farms and ranches, a measure clearly designed to shield any illegal, or just plain gross, activities in those places from the public eye. And they shot down yet another attempt to open legislative caucuses to the public.
On balance, though, it was a good session for the public's right to know. Congratulations to all involved.