House Bill 477

Mar 4, 2011 by

We’re big fans of Mark Twain around here. So it is with some trepidation that we ignore some of his most popular advice which is to “never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel.”

Utah’s open records laws were groundbreaking in 1992. And we applaud elected officials as well as members of the public who crafted the laws. The Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) has played and will continue to play a significant role in ensuring that the people of Utah can keep an eye on what their government is doing in Utah.

Because of GRAMA, the public has access to everything from memos, to audio files of meetings, to some police records. The records have been used to right many wrongs and shed light on the public workings of government, which we are not ashamed to admit is not always perfect.

But a funny thing happened over the past 20 years: Technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. The Internet was barely a buzzword in 1992 and cell phones could only be found among the wealthy, or at least those who could stand to haul those things around. As information exchange has transformed how we live and work, Utah’s GRAMA has remained largely the same.

Consider this: a recent records request asked for information regarding the District 57 boundary issue. In 1992, maps, letters, and memo exchanges would have been available to help the public better understand the situation. But in 2011, so-called “records” include text messages, e-mails, instant message transcripts, and voice mails, as well as the traditional content. Anything that can be duplicated is considered a record now. Many elected officials and members of the public feel that GRAMA is tipped so far out of balance that it is crippling the people’s government both in cost and in effort to comply with records requests. In the District 57 issue, even a two-line handwritten note that was passed across the desk from an elected official to a staffer was handed over because of concerns that it would be considered a public record.

A core concern with GRAMA is the distinction between a conversation and a record. When GRAMA was created it wasn’t fathomed that day-to-day conversations would be considered as records. But what you and we now consider a digital conversation is now considered public record: text messages, voice mails, instant message logs. If that’s the case, why not just mic up every elected official and the tens of thousands of public employees across the state? Not only is it an impossible task, it’s also a gross invasion of privacy.

And so we come to Rep. John Dougall and House Bill 477. The bill resets GRAMA with today’s technology in mind and clarifies legislative intent where court decisions have swung the pendulum dangerously far in one direction.

As for the arguments from the media, lawmakers have attempted to negotiate modest changes for years. But even the smallest and most reasonable of changes are met with the wailing and gnashing of teeth. We’re also weary of the sackcloth and ashes routine from media outlets and other special interest groups that for years have turned the state into their personal research arm funded by taxpayers.

Dozens and dozens of records requests come every year from the media and other groups that are so broad that they require hundreds of attorney and staff hours and encompass thousands of pieces of information – sometimes per request. Because of such fishing expeditions, the language in GRAMA is being changed to clarify what governments can do to recoup burdensome costs on behalf of the taxpayer.

Even with the proposed changes, Utah continues to be among the most transparent in the nation. We have a transparency site to track all state spending. We have full financial disclosure for all elected officials, as well as conflict of interest statements (click on your representative) and public meeting agendas all posted online. Here at the Legislature, we have all of our meetings streaming live, and we store that audio for anyone to listen to in the future. And we have GRAMA, alive and well.

Or to paraphrase Twain: “The reports of openness and transparency’s death are greatly exaggerated.”

Majority Leader Brad Dee

12 Comments

  1. Please relate to your legislative comrades that the passage of house bill 477 will not be forgotten come next election . What are you guys trying to hide? CYO is alive and well in the Utah Legislature !!!!!!!

  2. Kip Meacham

    Doesn’t the current GRAMA statute allow for the redaction of personal items from any requested records? If this is the case, then it seems dubious at best to dismiss outright these digital forms of communication. If this bill becomes law it crates an assured means of private communication beyond GRAMA’s reach. I believe this is a bad idea. Without presupposing to lecture the members of the house and senate, you hold a public office and with that office comes an obligation of transparency that extends beyond that of a mere private citizen of the state.

    Please help me understand where I’m wrong here; or please expound on the justification if my understanding of redaction use is, in fact, the case.

  3. The most offensive part of this bill is the assumption that the public is not intelligent enough nor reasonable enough to understand the intricacies of GRAMA. If you have a legitimate need for changes, take your case before the public and see what can be negotiated. Ramming this down our throats without input in three days with most people voting for it not even understanding the ramifications is downright shameful! The national experts are already claiming the bill puts us behind Mexico and China as far as access goes.
    The American form of govt. (whatever you want us to call it this week) has never been the most convenient or the least expensive but some pretty wise men decided it was the best. I submit you all change the state’s slogan to Utah, life concealed!

  4. Heather Duncan

    Yeah, great paraphrase of Twain, I’m sure he’d approve. It’s the CONTENT not the means, and the evolution of technology should be ever more inclusive, not less!

  5. Biker Babe

    just like all other paperwork in government work, it needs to be files appropriately firtst off – then it will all be in the proper place for when someone wants to look at it – either internally or through a GRAMA request … it’s a no-brainer. The file clerks will be a bit more busy, but it really won’t take a lot of digging and searching if it’s done right the first time. file it in the computer under key words then a simple search will bring it up … not really that much more expensive than current workload …

    really, if you do it right … but, O this is the government and gov’t has a hard time getting things right off the get-go and that’s why this GRAMA business is under fire … the GRAMA ending bill needs to pass before the weekend so it doesnt’ fester … let’s just get it through and we can fix it later … you don’t want to get it right, you just want to fly by the seat of your pants, constituents be damned!

    js

    BB

  6. The sheer arrogance of this post is unbelievable.

    The passage, content and defense of this very bad piece of legislation has been one of the most disheartening experiences in many years of following and writing about Utah politics. And if it’s having that effect on a hardened political junkie, imagine how disillusioning this experience must be for the average voter.

    Rep. Dee, you should be apologizing to Utah for that alone, even outside of this anti-transparency direction the legislature has chosen.

  7. Boyd Petersen

    Brad,

    I am surprised with the spin you use to justify HB477. I find it very interesting that you say the lawmakers have been attempting to negotiate even small changes with the media and the concerned citizen groups that watch what the legislature does. What you should be saying is that you have attempted to push changes through each year and the media and groups have asked time and time again to stop the procedure and ask to talk about the changes after the main session is over.

    After the session is over, we hear nothing. We attempt to contact the legislature and they say that the issue is dead. It was just five weeks ago that Joel Campbell (BYU Professor and representative for Utah Press Association) attempted to talk to both senators and representatives (Dougall being one of them) and they said that they had other matters for this session. Bulldoze GRAMA was what looks like was being planned without anyone outside of the Republican caucuses being allowed.

    Funny – Not once have any of us, the citizens or media, been invited to sit down with legislators to negotiate or more precisely, work out the needed changes that go along with the technology changes in communications. We know there needs to be some changes. Don’t say you have tried negotiating unless your idea of negotiating is to shove a bill into the legislature to see if you can get it to pass. No other discussion. Stop pretending!!!

    GRAMA isn’t perfect but it is classified by many state and federal government officials as the most open and citizen friendly law written to allow citizens and media to see what is really going on at Capitol Hill. The part about personal information is especially good and has been adopted by most states. I now hear from legislators, that it isn’t included in the current GRAMA law (several legislators who told me that they were told there wasn’t any privacy in GRAMA).

    Now the Republican leaders say “Enough is enough.” We do too! Why won’t you talk to us! Are you really afraid? It seems to us that you are.

    In 1990, the Legislature and Governor Norm Bangerter put together the task force to create what became GRAMA. It was adopted in 1992. The people who helped put GRAMA together were a diverse group including: senators, representatives, the Attorney General and a staff member, a few media representatives, a few lawyers that understood media and freedom of information law, two citizen groups and some select others. For two years they worked on GRAMA. Now you are changing the whole way of working with GRAMA with just the legislature giving input. It is only one sided.

    You may feel that there are changes needed, and you are right. We, the People, don’t trust our elected officials when they create a secret society to create new laws. That is what has happened. You say you are looking out for the good of the people. Really, you are finding it difficult and embarrassing when the media, special groups or the citizens of Utah find there are wrongs done in their name. It is us that you are supposed to serve, not the other way around.

    Finally, you are right that GRAMA isn’t dead. It has had its ability to see what the legislature is up to taken out of it. A lung and kidney has been removed. While it can still live, it will never be the same and neither will our rights be given back. I know you, the legislature, too well. You get a little power and you usurp it to get gain and more power over our state.

    You should be ashamed of yourself or you have been lied to and you believe the lie. Either way, DO THE RIGHT THING!

    Boyd Petersen
    Publisher and citizen in Utah.
    Member of Utah Press Association Board
    Supporter of Utah Foundation for Open Gavernment

  8. As a citizen volunteer who has filed quite a few GRAMA requests over the years, I take tremendous offense at being smeared as a “special interest” who goes on “fishing expeditions”. Even under the current law, it’s not easy to find out how a city or county is spending our tax dollars. Under this new law, they will charge prohibitively high fees for providing financial records, procurement files, and anything else that in their view requires “legal review” before being released.

    When a city is planning a $40 million taxpayer-funded project (as Ogden currently is), they can afford to take the time to respond to a couple of GRAMA requests about that project, and not force interested citizens to dig into our own pockets in order to learn that the contractors are being hired without competitive bidding. Yes, that’s what’s really happening and if you close the doors on transparency, it’ll get a whole lot worse.

  9. Dale Cressman

    Sorry, this is just spin. There is no possible excuse for trying to keep the people’s business in the dark. Your position is indefensible. Admit your mistake, fix it, and move on. Since we’re quoting Mark Twain it’s worth remembering that      
    “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

  10. Paul Larsen

    “We have a transparency site to track all state spending. We have full financial disclosure for all elected officials, as well as conflict of interest statements (click on your representative) and public meeting agendas all posted online. Here at the Legislature, we have all of our meetings streaming live, and we store that audio for anyone to listen to in the future. And we have GRAMA, alive and well.”

    While it is true that you have all of those things, how can we, the public part of your title “public servant,” verify the veracity of what is posted on these sites when you make the supporting documentation unavailable?

    I am not surprised that our so-called representatives are moving to make themselves less accessible. From where I sit, it seems as though many of them feel entitled to the Jazz tickets, free meals, and other perks they receive from their “gift-providing constituents” (read: lobbyists). If I no longer have access to the e-mails and text messages of my representative, it makes it far more difficult to see who could potentially be influencing (read: buying) how they may vote on a certain piece of legislation.

    Shame on our state legislature for trying to ram through this bill, though I suppose that they have simply learned from the legal problems of the likes of Rod Blagojevich and Kwame Kilpatrick and want to use HB477 to make it more difficult for the public and the media to uncover their shady dealings.

  11. Tom

    The sad part for me, a forty plus year member and supporter of the GOP, is the complete dearth of statesmen in the party leadership. Not one person from the Governor down has stood up and said this is BS, the people have a right to know the truth about Government. Instead they all seem to be conspiring to let it stand and sweep it under the rug until the hoi polloi settle down and forget about the big dark curtain they are pulling shut over their dealings on our behalf and on our dime.

    If this stands, I will never give another dime or minute of time to the Republican Party.

    • Paul Larsen

      Well, Tom, it appears that the governor signed it into law. Now we will never know what these “public” officials / “representatives” are up to because they can hide behind that big, dark curtain of secrecy they just created. I am literally sick to my stomach that the public has been shut out of government like this. Our uni-party state has no balances, and now it appears that the checks are gone as well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. #HB477: Why pick on GRAMA? | New Senate Site - [...] 18. What the House said. [...]
  2. Some Perspective on HB477 @ Opinionated @ CFE - [...] the capitol to try and find out what’s going on. The posts of their respective websites, Vox Populi and …
  3. Becky Edwards » Blog Archive » GRAMA - [...] blog/website, you can read an excellent analysis of HB 477 written by Majority Leader Brad Dee, http://www.utahreps.net/utah-legislature/house-bill-477 2. Rep. …
  4. Utah. Tax Elevated. Life Concealed. « Life of Di - [...] Utah legislature, who have offered their explanations here and here (read the comments for some great responses), claim that …

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