As part of last week’s observance of Sunshine Week, the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists recognized the best and the worst when it comes to open government.
The chapter gave its annual Sunshine Award to the Utah State Legislature for its Web site. The site allows the public to keep track of what its elected officials are doing. It contains text of bills that have been drafted, both the orignal amended versions. It also shows committee and floor votes for each bill. The site also provides streaming audio and video of the Legislature’s proceedings, as well as archived committee hearings and floor debates.
The chapter also recognizes those who try to stymie government transparency with the Black Hole awards. This year, the chapter honored three individuals for their efforts at keeping people in the dark.
Utah state Sen. John Valentine, ironically a past recipient of the Sunshine Award, received a Black Hole for his work on two bills establishing an independent ethics commission for the Legislature. One of the bills, Senate Bill 136, created an exemption to the Open and Public Meetings Act by allowing the ethics committee to close meetings without having an open meeting first to review ethics complaints. The other, Senate Bill 138, allows the Legislature to keep ethics complaints under wraps. Only a summary report could be released publicly. The ethics bills were the Legislature’s response to an ethics initiative that would have imposed a more transparent and stringent ethics code on the Legislature. Conducting ethics investigations behind closed doors and not disclosing much detail does little to inspire public confidence in the Legislature. Unfortunately, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bills into law.
The second Black Hole went to Utah state Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, who proposed making public employees’ salaries private information. Under House Bill 266, only elected and appointed officials would have their salaries linked to their names. All other public employees would only be identified by job title and not name. Powell sponsored this legislation at the behest of Del Barney, Wasatch County’s payroll clerk. Barney said publishing public employees’ salaries was creating morale problems in offices. He specifically cited The Salt Lake Tribune’s open records Web site, Utah’s Right, that includes listings of public employee salaries. In an e-mail to an open-government advocate, Powell wondered if the Tribune would post its employees’ salaries online along with public employees. Powell forgot something important. Public employees work for the public, and the public has a right to know how their money is being spent. As anyone who has reviewed budgets knows, personnel costs are one of the biggest line items on a budget. Powell’s bill was sent to interim study.
The third Black Hole award went to Logan Mayor Randy Watts for his policy that the city would only respond to journalists through e-mail. Watts claimed the policy was needed to ensure that “information released to the media is accurate and timely and that all appropriate personnel have an opportunity to comment.” This is wrong for multiple reasons. First, it infringes on an employee’s free-speech rights by denying them the right to speak with a reporter seeking comment on matters of public concern. Second, it slows the flow of information. Waiting for someone to get an e-mail, write up a response and run it past the necessary parties eats up time. In the case of breaking news, it deprives the public of timely information. Finally, there is no guarantee that the information is coming from the person quoted. Most likely, it will be Watts’ spin on the news, depriving the public of an honest account of what is happening in various city departments.