Fight likely between press, senators on the Hill
Having lost round one against Utah’s House of Representatives, journalists say they are hunkering down for battle next week against senators who are trying to limit the free flow of government information in the state.
Reporters depend on Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) to help them ferret out waste and corruption among the state’s public officials. Lawmakers deemed most government records "public" when they enacted the law in 1992, said Tim Smith, an attorney who specializes in GRAMA cases.
He says House Bill 12, however, which is being sponsored in the state Senate by Republican Sen. David Thomas, "flips the standard of GRAMA on its head." GRAMA currently provides members of the public mostly journalists a vehicle to request information not always easily accessible from governmental agencies.
Thomas is Summit County’s chief civil deputy attorney and often weighs in on decisions on GRAMA requests from lawyers who are opposing him in court. HB 12 came out of a legislative task force co-chaired by Thomas last year that studied changes to the law.
A survey of his constituents in Weber County revealed that 65 percent would like most of their correspondences with elected officials to be kept private, Thomas said.
Twenty-two percent support media having access to the documents and almost 13 percent are undecided, he wrote in an e-mail to The Park Record on Friday, adding, "[HB12] has overwhelming support in its position from the public."
"Unfortunately, the media has used less than admirable tactics to confuse the issue," Thomas wrote.
But Smith explained, "right now under GRAMA, anything produced by a governmental entity or received by a governmental entity is basically considered to be a public document."
Thomas and Rep. Douglas Aagard, R-Kaysville say many of the written correspondences between public officials and their constituents including e-mails — which GRAMA now makes available to the public, should be off limits to reporters "unless one party agrees to make it public," Smith added.
"They’re trying to spin this issue as privacy. But it’s not privacy, it’s secrecy," Standard-Examiner Editorial Page Editor Don Porter said Thursday. "They’re trying to make it out like the jackal media are picking at the bones of their family and that just doesn’t happen."
However, among the lawmakers who disagree is Republican Sen. Allen Christensen, who represents much of eastern Summit County on Utah’s Capitol Hill.
"I think the media very much does abuse [GRAMA]," Christensen countered during a telephone interview Friday.
Though, he concedes there are abuses on both sides.
"When I want the media or someone to know something then I think I should bring it up and make it available to them, but I don’t think they have an automatic right to everything that I think, everything that I write," Christensen said.
Porter insists that is the wrong approach.
"They’re using this as a weapon to shut down the media," Porter said, adding that HB 12’s sponsors "have contempt for the media."
But opponents to the legislation wrongly portray the debate as a "secrecy thing," Christensen said.
"There has to be a degree of privacy in everybody’s life and a politician is no different," the senator said, adding that he would support HB 12 if it makes it to the Senate floor for a vote before March 1, the final day of the legislative session. "The constituents also have a right to some privacy."
According to Republican Sen. Beverly Evans, who represents portions of Summit County, "I have e-mails that come into my Blackberry every day and a lot of those are personal issues with families and they divulge a lot of information that should be held in privacy."
GRAMA already provides for an entity to turn down a request for information to protect an individual’s privacy, said Democratic Rep. Ross Romero, who represents portions of Snyderville and opposed HB 12.
"We already have protections in place that address those disclosures being protected," he said about letters that may disclose a citizen’s medical condition or criticism of a state agency if the provider of the information wishes to remain anonymous. "Subject to those rare instances I think we should be subject to disclosure."
Kamas Republican David Ure, who represents the remainder of Summit County in the House, also opposed HB 12. Still, the body passed the bill with a 42-30 vote.
Should Senators approve the legislation and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. sign the bill, citizens "can expect to be cut out of the loop and lawmakers can expect to do more business without having to worry whether or not the public gets to look over their shoulder," Porter said.
Information reporters receive from GRAMA requests often results in the area’s hardest hitting journalism, he said, adding that internal communication between politicians and their staffers could also be made off limits to the public.
"We’re talking about everything from city councils and planning commissions, on up to the Legislature," Porter said. "We’re the public’s eyes and ears."
HB 12 is currently the worst of a slew of bills proposed by lawmakers in 2006 that seek to alter GRAMA, Smith said.
"It would make it so the presumption is that it’s private," he said.
While the current law requires an entity prove why a requested document should be private, HB 12 shifts the burden to the citizen making the request, Smith said, adding, "why not do everything in the open? Why fight it? Why make it more difficult for the public to get information?"
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Daniel Lewis, an Old Town resident who unsuccessfully sought a spot on the Park City Council in 2019, said this week he will mount another campaign this year.