Yes. Ask Legislators to Voluntarily Release E-mail. That’ll work….

I admire the idealism here, but wow…

Utah State Senators on both sides of the aisle are trying to make it easier for the public to see what is in legislators’ email inboxes.

Sens. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, and Curt Bramble, R-Provo, have both submitted requests for bills that would deal with legislator’s emails. The efforts were inspired by the fight for documents related to the Legislature’s 2011 redistricting plan, which were being held back until the Utah Democratic Party paid almost $10,000 to cover the cost of putting the records together.

Lawmakers eventually released the documents after news outlets, including The Salt Lake Tribune, requested the documents under the Government Records Access and Management Act, commonly known as GRAMA.

“GRAMA is not working for journalists, the public or the Legislature,” Dabakis said.

Dabakis, who is also the state Democratic Party chairman, said he is working with Bramble on a way to improve access to records, especially email. He says the 1992 law was written before email and electronic communications became prevalent, and the rules should reflect that reality.

A Great New FOI Classroom!

Passing along this wonderful post from Sunlight on a fabulous new FOI classroom project! Love to see this kind of stuff!

On April 11, 2012 ten University of Utah Honors students will launch a state-wide public initiative which, if successful, will forever change how Utah citizens interact with their local governments.  The initiative, called the Utah Local Government Transparency Project, (the “Transparency Project”) is the end result of eight months of study by the students in an Honors College Think Tank on Transparency and Privacy.  The Think Tank explored the often competing paradigms of privacy and transparency and heard from leading local and national experts in the area of open government and privacy  (including Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation)  to gain a comprehensive understanding of the complexities, nuances and challenges of balancing and reconciling these two competing interests.  We learned many things, including the fact that local governments in Utah, with some notable exceptions, lagged behind many of their counterparts around the nation in terms of transparency.  A study of 16 selected Utah local governments conducted as part of the Project demonstrated a wide disparity in government transparency practices and identified many transparency deficiencies.  From this in-depth study the Transparency Project was born.  As explained in greater detail below, the centerpiece of the Project is five transparency “best practices” for local governments to adopt.

Go, Utes! Go!

BAck to the FOI Drawing Board in Utah…

After an infamous backfire on FOI reform, Utah pols are back to work, this time with a much better, collaborative process:

Last year, an attempt to change Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act led to a raucus Capitol Hill rally, outraged editorials and citizens throughout the state up in arms.

This year, the effort to amend the public records access law, known as GRAMA, met with no opposition as the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 6-0 Tuesday to send SB177 on to the full Senate.

Those “new tools” include provisions for the online training and certification of public officials charged with responding to the GRAMA requests from the public. Those officials would have to recertify once a year.

The bill would also create an ombudsman to help both those trying to make requests and the state agencies responding to them.

But Petersen said she was also concerned about how the ombudsman would be funded. A similar pornography ombudsman in the Attorney General’s Office was funded for two years, but hasn’t been since, she said.

The new GRAMA bill results from a working group set up to look at the contentious issue after the Legislature passed then repealed last year’s HB477 in a special session. The new proposal only deals with issues on which the working group came to a consensus, said Sen. Curt Bramble, the bill’s sponsor.

One member of the working group, Jeff Hunt, an attorney for the Utah Media Council, praised the final product.

The proposal clarifies the difference between which records of public official public and which are private, Hunt said. It also strengthens the “balancing test,” he said. That’s language in the law which says that if the benefit to the public of releasing a record is “equal or greater than” the benefit to a private party, the public interest trumps private interest.

Here is a great idea: rate your state’s FOI proposals!

Now this is clever:

A coalition of news organizations from across Utah has created a new system to rank legislation dealing with the state’s open records law.

The Utah Media Coalition’s rating system will let the public and lawmakers know how it views proposed changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, Provo’s Daily Herald and the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The system will rank proposed changes in three categories: a “bright light” for legislation that is good for open government, a “pale light” for legislation that is neutral, and “lights out” for legislation that would harm open government access.

The new GRAMA WATCH program follows a public outcry last year when lawmakers rewrote Utah’s records law to protect text messages, instance messages and video chat from public release. Gov. Gary Herbert called lawmakers back into session to repeal HB477.

“I think after the HB477 fiasco, the public and media need to do a better job watching the legislative process,” said Joel Campbell of the media coalition. “We will be rolling out a rating whenever we identify a bill that deals with GRAMA. We feel this will keep the public involved in the process.”

A Column Celebrating a Citizen FOI Warrior….

My pal Joel Campbell does something more columnists should do: highlighting a local FOI warrior. We need to do more of these sorts of stories extolling the virtues of citizen requesters!

Sitting in front of the State Records Committee on Thursday, Dan Schroeder deftly sorts through documents and cites the law as he responds to arcane legal points about why the Utah Attorney General’s Office won’t give him access to a closed investigation into the dubious Envision Ogden scheme.

Without a closer look, a casual observer might assume Schroeder is a trained lawyer with years of experience using Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). In reality, Schroeder is a physics professor at Weber State University whose “hobby” is challenging Ogden politicians. Utah could use more people like Schroeder.

Depending on whom you talk to, Schroeder is either a publicity monger or a watchdog on the steps of Ogden’s City Hall. Schroeder likes to say he investigates things that journalists neither have the time for nor the expertise to understand. He posts much of what he finds on a blog called Weber County Forum.

Schroeder has acquired a record of shining light on the actions of Ogden’s elite.

Utah Becomes A National Rallying Point for FOI….

My good buddy Joel Campbell gives us the scoop in the Salt Lake Tribune:

It may be a dubious honor, but Utah’s open-records fight has become a battle cry for open-government activists across the nation.

The Washington-based Sunlight Foundation delivered a petition Friday at the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse signed by thousands of open-government activists to governors attending the National Governors Association meetings here.

They want to raise the profile of open government in every state. That’s important because it has become popular for politicians to promise open government on the campaign trail and then abandon the idea once in office.

Gabriela Schneider, the group’s communications director, said it was ironic that Salt Lake City is the site of the petition delivery since Utah lawmakers enacted and then rescinded HB477, which would have thrown up major roadblocks to government-records access. Gov. Gary Herbert is featured among the group’s poster children for open-government abuse, and images from HB477 protests are part of a video call to action.

“Over the last few months, Sunlight has observed a disturbing trend of states rolling back transparency of government information, clouding the ability of the public to see what their government and its officials are doing,” Schneider said,

Like the Sunlight Foundation, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also noted several governors who didn’t keep their campaign promises for open government. Included on the list are governors from Wisconsin, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.

Constituent E-Mail Latest Utah Sticking Point

Brooke Adams continues to do a stellar job of chronicling the Utah working group’s efforts to redraw the state’s FOI laws:

As the work of a group charged with recommending changes to Utah’s open-records law draws to a close, it’s clear there’s a major sticking point among its members: whether written correspondence from constituents to lawmakers should be public at all.

Most people don’t realize the letters and emails they send to legislators are public records under the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, said GRAMA Working Group member Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton. He argues an attempt to alert them to that fact may only serve to chill communication from some.

“Is that constitutional?” he asked at a recent group subcommittee meeting. “You cannot talk to your legislator in an email without it being a public document?”

After nearly three months of discussion, Adams and numerous other lawmakers are not convinced the law does enough to protect personal information disclosed to them on a daily basis by constituents or to avoid subjecting people to what Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, calls “pre-emptive intimidation” of those who don’t like their views on hot-button issues.

Efforts to shield such communication have been successful elsewhere. Across the country, nearly a dozen states, including Kentucky, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have walled off constituent communication. Those states specifically say such correspondence is not public record, or they provide broad protections for personal, private disclosures….

 

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