What do you get when you put a few newspaper editors together with First Amendment attorneys and legislative lobbyists?
A roomful of hot air?
If it's the legislative session in Utah, you get GRAMA WATCH. For the second year running, the Utah Media Coalition has gathered this group to examine bills coming out of the Utah Legislature for their effects on open government.
GRAMA WATCH was born out of the ashes of the HB477 battle in 2011, when legislators eviscerated the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), only to reverse themselves when the citizenry took to protests and petitions demanding that reversal.
The GRAMA WATCH team reviews and rates legislation for its transparency, assigning a "bright light" to a bill that benefits open government, a "lights out" to a bill that works against openness, or a "pale light" if the bill has a neutral effect.
In 2012, the group rated 13 pieces of legislation, and Utah legislators followed the group's recommendations on eight of those bills.
GRAMA WATCH largely operates as a group email thread. Veteran lobbyists Doug Foxley and Frank Pignanelli, who represent the Utah Press Association, are the eyes and ears on the Hill, giving us the heads up when a bill may be worth our attention.
The editors then jump in and check the bill out, looking for phrasing that is either beneficial or problematic for open government. It is a varied group, including top editors from both The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News as well as Linda Petersen, editor of the Valley Journals, Randy Wright, editor of the Provo Daily Herald, and Rick Shaw, publisher of the Sun Advocate in Carbon County. BYU journalism professor Joel Campbell brings his expertise.
Joining them are two of Utah's top First Amendment lawyers, Jeffrey J. Hunt, from Parr Brown, and Michael P. O'Brien, from Jones Waldo. Hunt was a key player when Utah's most important open-government law, GRAMA, was crafted in the 1990s. O'Brien has argued countless cases for The Tribune and other media clients for almost two decades. Their precision and professionalism are both welcomed and feared on Capitol Hill.
And behind this team is a larger group of supporting news organizations, including television and radio stations, both public and private, all sharing a basic belief in government transparency.
For the most part, sponsoring legislators are on board with the benefits of open government. In the first week of the session, four of the five GRAMA WATCH notes issued have been "bright lights."
Sometimes they need GRAMA WATCH to point out potential pitfalls where, purposely or not, the change would decrease public access. Some legislators really do want to operate in backroom power plays, but others are just trying to solve a practical problem without recognizing the public might be left behind.
To be sure, when government stays open, it's easier for our reporters to investigate. But GRAMA WATCH is about more than self-interest. This group knows the simple dynamic that sunshine kills the germs that darkness breeds. In our jobs, we see it every day. There is wisdom floating in that hot air.
But don't just read the notes. Take the time to let your state legislators know what you think about open government, or about any other issue in government. Transparency increases participation, so don't forget your part.
Tim Fitzpatrick is deputy editor of The Salt Lake Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.