The Park Record editorial, March 9-11, 2011
March 8, 2011
When the Utah Legislature pulled a surprise bill out of its back pocket last week, it was the press that cried foul the loudest. But it is citizens, not reporters, who have the most to lose if House Bill 477, which would significantly restrict the public’s access to government records, is allowed to stand as written.
The bill, which was unveiled and passed at lightning speed last week, would make several types of electronic correspondence off limits, would make it tougher to obtain approval for release of records, and would uncork previous caps on how much government agencies can charge to retrieve those documents.
Lawmakers, (with a few notable exceptions including Representative Joel Briscoe, who was one of just 19 legislators who voted against HB477) claim the amendments to the Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) are needed to protect privacy and to reduce nuisance requests that they say take staff time and are expensive. And while they like to point a finger at the press when they make those accusations, most GRAMA requests come from regular citizens.
According to Summit County Clerk Kent Jones, in a typical year he receives less than half a dozen formal GRAMA requests and less than half of those are from the media. In fact, Jones says that most of the document requests he receives don’t require an official GRAMA form and he just points the callers in the right direction to get the information they need.
It is a similar story in Park City where the staff says less than 10 percent of the official GRAMA requests come from reporters. The city handles about 500 GRAMA requests a year. The higher number, the staff says, is because it prefers to have an official request in hand in order to ensure everyone gets the same treatment. The form, however, is brief and, under the current rules, most requests are approved and quickly handled.
So why exactly does the legislature think the current GRAMA law is a problem? Why are lawmakers so desperate to hide their electronic correspondence? Why do they want to make it harder to prove that you have a right to see their records of official business? And why do they want to charge the public more to ask a public servant to deliver those public documents?
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If you ever filed a GRAMA request because you felt that you had been harmed, or mistreated, or denied your rights; if you ever questioned a public official about his actions and were rebuffed; if you ever encountered resistance because you wanted to right an injustice or wanted to find out where your tax dollars were being spent; your ability to do so in the future has been trampled by the very people you put in place to protect your rights.
When the impact of HB477 became public late last week, the legislators, who had so confidently crammed the measure through the process, began backpedaling and added a clause that would delay implementation until July 1. Nevertheless, the bill is a clumsy attempt to shield bureaucrats at all levels from the scrutiny of their constituents and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert should send it to the shredder.