A dark day for Utah FOI

Update: HB 477 passed the Utah Senate Friday on a 21-7 vote, and it now goes to Gov. Gary R. Herbert for his signature. Herbert’s phone number is 801-538-1000, or e-mail him at governor@state.ut.us

On Wednesday, the Utah House Public Utilities and Technology Committee gave its OK to a bill that essentially dismantles the 20-year-old Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). As The Salt Lake Tribune reports, the bill, House Bill 477, would strip the legislative intent statement from GRAMA, which states that privacy concerns would be balanced with the public’s right to know; requiring those who appeal a records denial to make the case for disclosure by a “preponderance of the evidence” rather than submitting to a balancing test of the public’s right to know verus privacy concerns; makes text messages, instant-message chats, video chats and voice mails private records; fee waivers would be based on whether it was in the best interest of “taxpayer resources” to do so, rather than whether the person is seeking the records for a public benefit; and would allow for the inclusion of overhead, salary and other costs associated with filling a request; and make much of the Legislature’s paperwork exempt from disclosure.

And those are just a few of the things it does.

Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, ironically identified himself as an advocate of transparency. He claims GRAMA has gone too far and, to bolster his case, he trots out the canard of a constituent e-mailing a legislator to discuss a bill and mentioning as an aside that his child is sick, and the child’s illness being splashed across the front pages of newspapers.

In my years of covering the Legislature, the only time I can recall something remotely like that happening was when a lobbyist for the Utah Education Association had mentioned to a senator in confidence that her child was in a program for troubled children, and the senator then disclosed that on the Senate floor.

Dougall, if he had bothered to really read GRAMA, would know that sensitive information can be redacted from an otherwise public document. Besides, a reporter working on a story about a piece of legislation is not going to write about the fact that Rep. Foghorn’s constituent’s kid has chicken pox.

The real intent appears to be to punish journalists and others who dare to use GRAMA to hold public officials accountable for what they do — or do not. The Tribune reports that Jeff Hunt, a media attorney who helped draft GRAMA back in 1991, was told by Dougall that his bill was inspired by GRAMA requests directed at the Legislature seeking records on budget recommendations, immigration-reform legislation and a proposal that would allow people to shoot feral cats with impunity.

The fact that the bill has come out late in the game — the Legislature adjourns sine die March 10 and Wednesday was the last day for committee hearings on bills — suggests that Dougall and his colleagues were not interested in hearing honest debate on their bill, but want to ram this through and — they think — punish journalists.

In the end, they are punishing the people they claim to represent and watch out for as they work on Capitol Hill. GRAMA, like all open-government laws, was drafted to allow the public to get the information they need to know if government is acting on their behalf. In this session, legislators made a big stink about how America is a “constitutional republic” rather than a democracy. What they are forgetting is that under our form of government, the people have hired them to do the work of government, and the people have a right to call them into account. To do that, they need access to public records. As James Madison wisely wrote, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”

The bill is in the Utah House of Representatives, and appears to be on a fast track. You can contact Dougall at 801-610-9402 or jdougall@utah.gov.

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