The city of Bluffdale is taking a step backward in the long march toward open government, and it is further indication that state legislators need to refine the process for getting public records to the public.
Bluffdale recently decided that it would set up its own records committee to review requests for city records from the public and the news media. This came after the state records committee reversed Bluffdale’s decision to withhold information about water use at the National Security Agency’s big data center.
Bluffdale maintained that releasing the water data "could jeopardize security of governmental property," but not one member of the state’s records committee bought that. The committee voted 5-0 to release the data, saying there was no security risk. (The NSA, by the way, had written letters in support of Bluffdale’s denial of the records, but the spy agency apparently was OK with honoring the committee’s decision rather than going to court.)
Officials in Bluffdale say that loss was not behind the decision to form their own records committee as allowed by current state law. They say they want their own committee — made up of members of the city council — because as elected officials they will be more responsive to the public.
Nice try. The better description of this setup is that it eliminates oversight. It should be obvious to all that you can’t have one group deciding what to release, and then have the people who appoint, manage and pay that group deciding whether the decision was a good one.
Still, this is the system allowed under current law. Cities and counties are given the option of having records appeals go through their own records committees or through the state records committee.
The state committee is superior for a couple of reasons. First, they are independent. They can decide cases on their merits, not on small-town politics. Second, they are experts. By law the committee includes representatives from government, from the records-management industry, from the news media and from the citizenry. They serve multi-year terms so they become educated on state records law, and their decisions are rarely overturned by the courts. Keeping these fights out of the courts keeps the process affordable for ordinary citizens.
There have been proposals to change state law so that all appeals of record denials would go through the state committee, and that is the right thing to do. Time and again Utah citizens have made it clear they want their government as open as possible, and the state committee has the track record for making that happen.
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