[Update, 3/7/11] This afternoon the Senate voted to recall HB 477. The House will send it back so Senator Buttars can add an amendment changing the effective date from “immediately” to July 1st. In between now and then we’ll create a working group to negotiate changes that make sense. They will bring their proposals to interim committee hearings in May and June. If all parties negotiate in good faith, we expect to have a solution ready for a potential special session sometime before July 1st.
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With a few very impressive exceptions, media outlets struggle to cover HB 477 objectively. We don’t blame them, but it means we won’t win the PR war. However, out of respect for anyone who honestly wants to know why we did what we did, here are some reasons for the bill.
1. GRAMA has been used as a tool for fishing expeditions. Some entities (media outlets and law firms) asked for massive amounts of records over long periods of time in order to troll for information that may or may not be there. This has diverted staff time and tax dollars to an unreasonable degree.
2. There are too many disputes between the media and the Legislature about the interpretation of certain words, concepts, and provisions in GRAMA. We wanted to clarify.
3. GRAMA was written into Utah Code twenty years ago – long before email, instant messaging, text messaging and video chat were in common use. GRAMA anticipated that written records would be public but private conversations could stay private. Current GRAMA code defines casual text, video chat and instant message conversations, etc. as “records” rather than “conversations.”
4. One city had a request for the entire parking enforcement data base since 2000 – more than a million lines of data – looking for information on one vehicle.
5. GRAMA requests can be time-consuming. Legislative staffers spent over 400 hours last year fulfilling these requests, sorting through tens of thousands of records. This keeps them from performing other important duties, like drafting bills. So far this legislative session (not counting today), 10 GRAMA requests have been made, which, when coupled with a near-record number of bill requests, has created a major log jam.
6. As GRAMA requests increase in scope they get more expensive. Who should pay for all the staff hours and printing cost? Right now, the default assumption is that the taxpayers foot the bill.
7. GRAMA does not protect the privacy of constituents. People write their legislator and often disclose personal information in confidence, not knowing that GRAMA allows anyone to access that information.
8. Necessary GRAMA changes have been suggested for many years. Based on experience, some lawmakers lack faith that the media bosses could negotiate in good faith re: GRAMA and arrive at reasonable solutions.
9. West Valley City had to deal with a request for all land-use decisions over the past 30 years; it took 1 full time person 3 months, including multiple reviews by other staff, to fill the request. Costs approached $30,000.
10. The governor’s office filled 30 GRAMA requests last year, releasing 1,900 documents after poring over tens of thousands of them. The staff member tasked with handling records requests spent more than 100 hours doing so, and as with all government agencies, that doesn’t include the participation required from other staff.
11. GRAMA contains broad legislative intent language that has been used by the Utah Supreme Court to circumvent the actual language of the law. Eliminating this will ensure that government entities, the state, records committee and courts rely on the plain language of the statute. See Deseret News v. Salt Lake County, 3/28/08, Footnote 3. We shouldn’t have to legislate this but here we are.
12. The town of Alta spent six (6) years fulfilling one request for every public document – 250,000 of them — at a cost of $37,000.
13. GRAMA does not protect notes and other informal documents prepared by or for a legislator’s own use or reference.
14. GRAMA does not protect personal email addresses or other online identifiers a person may want to keep private.
15. The idea of bringing our GRAMA laws up to date is not a new one. When ideas have been brought up in the past, the media bosses took it upon themselves to pick off legislative support one legislator at a time.
16. Most legislators feel that private communications with family, personal friends or business clients should go beyond a theoretical protection. If challenged, the court is predisposed to release the records.
17. This effort is first and foremost about restoring the open records law to its original intent while maintaining the public trust, functionality, and acclaim for transparency that Utah has earned.
18. What the House said.
19. What Representative Dougall said when he introduced HB477 to the House Public Utilities and Technology Committee on March 2.
20. The discussion in committee:
21. The vote:
22. This isn’t the final word. No legislation ever is. We’ll work on this through the interim.
You already know this, but it bears repeating:
The clear history of the Utah Legislature trends toward information flow and transparency and will continue that way. Currently, Transparent.Utah.Gov provides easy access for the public to view all financial dealings of state government. Financial disclosure statements are available for every legislator. Each bill, amendment, and substitute is available online, as is each bill request. Each final statement of legislative policy – memos, legal opinions, fiscal analysis, committee documents, legislative audits, is available in paper form and online. There is a steerable webcam available live 24/7 so you can see what is going on in the chambers at any given moment. Each committee hearing and every chamber debate is livestreamed and archived online.
HB 477 is about protecting privacy, updating a 20-year-old bill to accommodate new technologies, preventing runaway costs and clarifying some definitions.
The conversation will continue. As always, we’d appreciate your thoughtful comments.