Utah Legislature refuses to release lawmakers’ public calendars, claims they don’t exist

In an election year, Gov. Spencer Cox quickly signed legislation to make elected officials’ public calendars a secret.

For the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature, it’s “trust, but you can’t verify” when it comes to lawmakers and their official calendars.

During the recently ended 2024 legislative session, Utah lawmakers appear to have developed a severe allergy to public scrutiny. To soothe any hives that may result from the prying eyes of the public or media, lawmakers approved several pieces of legislation to hide their activities or exempt themselves from the state’s public records laws.

SB240 rewrites the state’s open records law to exempt the calendars of elected officials and state employees. The GOP supermajority in the House and Senate gave final approval to the bill on the same day a judge ruled that Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’ official calendar is a public record and ordered it released to media outlets. Gov. Spencer Cox signed the bill — that would also ensure his own calendar would not be a public record — the next day, putting the revisions into immediate effect.

The day before SB240 went into effect, The Salt Lake Tribune submitted open records requests under the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) law seeking the official calendars of all 104 lawmakers and the work calendars of the top staffers in the Utah House and Senate.

After two weeks, those requests were denied with the explanation that the records did not exist. The Tribune received a similar response after attempting to gain access to House Speaker Mike Schultz’s calendar following his appearance at an event featuring a prominent Christian nationalist.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who is running for governor, publicly released his legislative calendar the day after Cox signed the bill into law. Yet, The Tribune was told by the Utah Legislature that it did not turn up in a search of legislative records.

“This is a self-own,” King said of the Legislature during an interview. “This is a self-inflicted wound.”

King explained that much of his “official” calendar consists of accepting calendar invites for meetings and other activities, which are then integrated into his calendar. It took a minimal amount of time to separate that agenda from the one for his law practice.

King said it’s irritating to him that lawmakers are unnecessarily eroding trust with the public and creating the perception that they have something to hide.

“We should be happy to produce our official schedules if someone asks. If you have nothing to hide, then why are you acting like this? The justifications for keeping these away from the public don’t strike me as plausible and raise some red flags,” King said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City during the start of 2024 legislative session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

It appears that lawmakers were not even given the choice of whether to release their calendars in response to The Tribune’s records requests. Several legislators said the request was never forwarded to them. Legislative sources say the Republican Senate Caucus was informed of a request for their calendars, but that staff would take care of it so lawmakers did not have to bother.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she was unaware of the request for her official calendar and is frustrated by her Republican colleagues’ proclaiming the legislative process sacrosanct, and then undermining that process at every turn.

“They (legislative Republicans) like to preach about transparency, but they do very little to create transparency,” Riebe said. “These kinds of things are disingenuous when they talk about the importance of being civic-minded.”

Riebe says the sudden urgency to protect calendars is a symptom of a more significant problem where elected officials believe they do not need to be held accountable to the citizenry.

“We live in a patriarchal society in Utah that adds to this mindset that our leaders are infallible. It’s really alarming. We are blessed with the greatest economy, but this is going to lead to our demise if we’re not responsible to our citizens,” Riebe said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Activists in support of transgender rights hold a sit-in in front of a bathroom at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights.

Gunita Singh, a staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, calls Utah lawmakers’ decision to hide their calendars from the public a “giant step backward.”

“Access to calendar entries — and related types of records like call logs and/or meeting invitations — can be profoundly revelatory,” Singh said. “For instance, disclosure of such records can shed light on whether an elected official or other government employee is too entangled with special interest groups, or whether they are taking extended amounts of time away from work and neglecting their official duties to the detriment of the public.”

She says before the Legislature rewrote the law to protect themselves from public disclosure of their calendars, Utah Code contained an explicit presumption in favor of disclosing these records.

To justify keeping the public in the dark about their activities, some lawmakers argued that releasing their calendars to public view could lead to theoretical threats to their safety. Singh calls that argument a red herring.

“There were already exemptions in GRAMA to account for preventing unwarranted invasions of personal privacy. The law, as it stood before this amendment, would have lawfully permitted withholding information about sensitive personal or medical matters, for example, that might have been present in a government record like an official’s calendar,” Singh said. “So, this recent legislation just creates an excessive shroud of secrecy for no legitimate reason whatsoever.”

King adds that, at a basic level, the public has a right to know who is communicating with elected officials or giving them information.

“As electeds, we are better off revealing what we’re doing, which leads to a higher level of trust. That improves our performance as public officials. When I know someone is looking over my shoulder, it’s much more likely that I will do a better job than when I know nobody is watching,” King said.