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Journalists leery of lawmakers’ changes

by Patrick Parkinson

A legislative task force debating which government records citizens should be allowed to view passed three bills Tuesday that journalists say could hide some elected officials’ actions from the eyes of the public. The Utah Legislature formed the task force last spring to update the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) and bring the law in line with developments in technology over the past decade. But talk of banning access to some e-mails from citizens to politicians has journalists around the state hunkering down for a battle next January. "I think it’s the most threatening and troubling set of proposals to come along in the history of [GRAMA]," said Jeff Hunt, an attorney in Salt Lake who represents various media outlets in a push to oppose changing the law. "I’ve never seen a package of proposals that would roll back access to government records like this package would." GRAMA was enacted in 1992 as a way to determine which government records the public can access and which should be kept hidden from inquiring minds. "A lot of things have come up since then," said state Sen. David Thomas, a Republican from Davis County who co-chairs the legislative task force examining the law. Thomas is also a deputy Summit County attorney. GRAMA is "silent" about whether the public should have access to electronic records, like e-mails and text messages, he added. "That’s just simply wrong & it’s not silent on the information contained in the e-mails," Hunt countered during a telephone interview Monday. "There’s no question that e-mails fall within the definition of a record under GRAMA." Reporters already use the law to obtain e-mails sent to elected officials on city councils and county commissions. Much of the news printed in local newspapers is derived from these GRAMA requests, Hunt said, adding that the law also adequately addresses privacy concerns. GRAMA requests deemed "unwarranted invasions" of privacy, or discussions of companies’ trade secrets, for example, are protected by the law, he said. A bill the task force passed could allow journalists access to many e-mails sent to politicians, Thomas said. "We’re actually opening up areas that haven’t been opened before," the senator said, adding that citizens shouldn’t be allowed access to some electronic correspondences between representatives and their constituents or staffers. "The news media generally want everything accessible & we want to encourage open and candid conversations with staff." But internal correspondences between politicians and staffers the task force is attempting to hide can be especially revealing, Hunt said, adding, "the public has an interest not just in finding out what the ordinance is that’s voted on. The public has an interest in finding out what the debate is about." Editorial writers around the state, who claim the task force was formed to address issues related to identity fraud, slammed its members for veering off course in their debate. Thomas, however, insists legislation passed last year that formed the committee instructed the task force to review all aspects of GRAMA. "We’re not worried about whether it comes by e-mail, fax, blog, podcasting or any other technology that’s invented. What we’re concerned about is what’s contained in the communication," said Allison Hess, an officer in Utah’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. "They are making it more difficult, protecting more records than they did under the current GRAMA legislation." After six task force meetings lawmakers are determined to undo legislation that has functioned well for more than a decade, she added. "There are lots of e-mails between legislators and lobbyists and others that are trying to change laws, that the public has a compelling interest in knowing about," Hunt said. "Do we want to put all those off limits to the public? It would create a blanket exception for all e-mail communications between a legislator and any citizen." Other bills approved by the task force Tuesday address how to appeal a decision on a GRAMA request and how government officials should compile information for the public. The bills have been forwarded to an interim committee and must be passed by the Legislature next year before they become law.


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