I Think It Was H.L. Mencken Who Said “Governments Lie.”

It’s an FOI request that serves as a perfect example of why we need access to the very documents at issue in Utah….amazingly, what was cited again and again by the lords of darkness was, at best, “an estimate.”

This fabulous story had me laughing out loud —

As Utah lawmakers argued why they needed the now-repealed HB477 to shield more records from public release, leaders repeatedly said their staffers had been swamped by records requests in 2010 and spent more than 400 hours filling them.

But an open-records request from The Salt Lake Tribune shows the Legislature can produce no records to substantiate that claim, and attorneys now say it was an estimate. Related records that do exist suggest that the estimate may have been high.

Also during debates, lawmakers worried aloud that the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) could force disclosure of their personal emails or texts.

However, the documents obtained by The Tribune show that whenever such records were requested recently, the Legislature denied them, saying they were not public under GRAMA (without changes sought by HB477).


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Utah Conversation Shifts to Closing Email to Protect You…Watch Out!

Scanned image of author's US Social Security card.

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The conversation turns from policy to politics in Utah, as the operatives see an opportunity to close e-mail for that most politically popular of reasons — the protection of constituent “privacy,” a word symbolizing much and meaning nothing.

It’s a smart political move for Utah GOP legislators to repeal the GRAMA amendments and to now push for “protections” of their own constituents’ private electronic communications with pubic officials.

So say several Republican political operatives UtahPolicy spoke with over the weekend.

“As far as I’m concerned, the only smart (GOP) officeholders are the Steve Urquharts out there who are saying – “Hey, we messed up, now let’s fix it,”” said one Republican who has been active in party politics for years.

The Republicans spoke to UtahPolicy asking that their names not be used because they still have to work with GOP legislators and party leaders.

Last Friday, as you know, the Utah House and Senate repealed HB477 – a GRAMA revision much-hated by Utahns.

And the main theme expressed in an open House GOP caucus and on the Senate floor debate (the House basically had no floor debate) was that while HB477 did do some good things, what citizens now have to understand that they are “naked” before the prying eyes of the media and other special interest groups unless GRAMA is changed.

“It’s smart,” said another GOP activist, “for lawmakers to now try to get across that constituents’ belief that their communications with their public officials are private may not be the case, and that unless (lawmakers act) they won’t remain private.”

While there is some argument about this – media attorneys, for example, say GRAMA already contains “protected” status for legislators’ and other public officials’ private communication with constituents – many legislators (even the Democrats, who nearly unanimously voted for repeal) worry about such constituent communications.

The post is quite right: it’s a shrewd move, politically. It’s also quite true that some emails between constituents and their elected officials might well be public. But….note this line:

…what citizens now have to understand that they are “naked” before the prying eyes of the media and other special interest groups unless GRAMA is changed.

Naked? Huh? What?

Let’s take a quick peek under the hood at the pertinent exemptions in the current law, courtesy of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’s fabulous Open Government Guide.

So, you send an e-mail to Sen. Blowhard. Before it would be released, it would be subject to this scrutiny:

1. Does it concern  “records concerning an individual’s eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits, social services, welfare benefits, or the determination of benefit levels”

2. Does it contain “records containing an individual’s medical history”

3. Does it contain “records of publicly funded libraries used to identify a patron”?

4. Are the “records received or generated in a Senate or House ethics committee concerning any alleged violation of the rules on legislative ethics if the ethics committee meeting was closed to the public?”

5. Are there “records concerning a current or former employee of, or applicant for employment with, a governmental entity ‘that would disclose that individual’s home address, home telephone number, Social Security number, insurance coverage, marital status, or payroll deductions'”

6. You can not, under Utah public records law, reveal a person’s Social Security number.

7. And you can not release “that part of a voter registration record identifying a voter’s driver license or identification card number, Social Security number, or last four digits of the Social Security number.”

Whew! So who’s naked now? And after these exemptions are applied, what constituent-to-public official correspondence, e-mail or otherwise, should then be withheld? And what about public official-to-constituent?

Let’s not forget, such correspondence might be Grandma contacting her local council about a pothole — but it might also be a powerful regulated industry seeking favor. Or their fellow influence peddlers. This is why they’ll push so hard for a huge exemption for constituent “privacy” — because it’s extremely helpful for public official “privacy.”

An exemption for such communication that “clearly constitutes an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” as the federal FOIA does, with a public interest standard installed that could override such concerns, might do the trick.

But whenever government officials say they are out to “protect your privacy,” please understand that what they mean is “we’d like to take information that is available to you now, should you need it, and secure it for your protection.” That, my friends, is a surrender of sovereignty from the people to the government, and it should always, always be the last resort. A tad here, a tad there, and suddenly you needn’t worry, for the government is protecting you from all that scaaaaaary information…..

There are legitimate privacy interests here. Most of them are covered by the existing exemptions. The rest could be handled very neatly and narrowly. The early rhetoric (YOU ARE NAKED!) suggests otherwise.



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Utah Legislature REPEALS HB 477

Utah State Capitol

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Think a few organized citizens can’t shake up the world?

After enduring two weeks of public fury, Utah lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Friday to repeal a bill that would have restricted public access to government records.

While Senate President Michael Waddoups accused the media of lobbying on the issue and others blamed the press for biased coverage that turned citizens against them, Sen. Steve Urquhart said bluntly: “We messed up. It is nobody’s fault but ours.”

Urquhart added, “We can do much better, to where the citizens of this state will be proud of the Legislature.”

The votes to repeal HB477 were resounding: 60-3 in the House, and 19-5 in the Senate.

HB477 had passed earlier this month just 72 hours after its text was introduced. Lawmakers said they moved swiftly to avert expected opposition by the press, and said they were acting to stop “fishing expeditions” by reporters seeking to embarrass lawmakers.

But it launched a two-week firestorm that included chanting protesters marching in the Capitol, launching of a voter referendum seeking to repeal HB477, attacks by most major news media in the state, threats of lawsuits, and advertisements assailing it by such influential groups as the Alliance for Unity and Common Cause.

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The 36 Questions Utah’s Working Group Is Looking At…

All here thanks to the Salt Lake Tribune…

It’s an interesting list, containing many of the hot-button issues in FOI-Land these days. Then again, we can all see how some of the are but red herrings. Ought to be a lively discussion!

Good Sign? HB477 Working Group Formed in Utah…

Governor Herbert has called a special session Friday that may repeal HB477, while a group has been formed to study how to re-vamp and replace the state’s open-government records law.

In a statement Herbert released he signaled the need for the working group to replace the bill as it stands now instead of simply delaying the bill’s implementation until July 1, as the Legislature had agreed to in the last week of the session. “It is now clear to me that HB477, both in process and substance, has resulted in a loss of public confidence,” Herbert said in a released statement.

The group now formed will start studying how to modernize Utah’s twenty-year old open-government law to balance government transparency with legislators and constituents privacy.


The Darkness is Strong With Them, Young Jedi…

Wow. Just wow.

After being hammered by nearly two weeks of bad press and complaints from angry constituents, Gov. Gary Herberton Monday his intention to call a special session for Friday to quickly repeal a controversial change to Utah’s open records law.

But Senate President Michael Waddoups said Monday evening that the Senate would not go along, potentially derailing the repeal, which House Republicans had already endorsed earlier in the day.

Waddoups said he hadn’t talked to a single Republican senator who supported immediate repeal of HB477, which made a series of changes to Utah’s open-records law.

“I’m guessing [the governor will] have to get a Democrat to sponsor the [repeal] bill in the Senate,” Waddoups said. Democrats hold only seven of the 29 Senate seats, where 15 votes are required to pass any bill.


Earth Moves, Dog Bites Man…Utah Guv Says HB477 Will Be Repealed!

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01:  Utah Governor Gary...

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Breaking news, from the Salt Lake Tribune:

Gov. Gary Herbert called Monday for the repeal of a controversial law created to restrict public access to government records, saying both the process and substance of the law “resulted in a loss of public confidence.”

Herbert said he would call a special session soon to enact the repeal, but called for all sides — the Legislature, news outlets and public — to engage in a “good faith” discussion of potential changes to Utah’s 20-year-old Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA.

Meantime, House Republicans were huddled in a closed-door caucus on Monday to discuss their options for repeal. Several members broke publicly with leadership last week and called for the repeal of HB477, which was rushed through the Legislature in just a few days.

Members of a working group designed to discuss issues related to the records law are expected to be announced today and the first meeting could be held later this week.

Herbert said he considered vetoing HB477, because the bill “did not meet the standard of openness and public dialogue such legislation warranted,” but he said the bill passed by veto-proof margins and, if the Legislature had overridden his veto, the law would have taken immediate effect.

It is unclear if the Legislature would have overridden the veto. Seventeen House members changed their votes and opposed the bill when it received final passage, getting 42 votes, short of the 50 that would be needed to override the governor’s veto.


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SPJ Black Hole Award Getting Lots of Press…

Wish he didn’t have to give these out, but so long as we do, it seems to be garnering its fair share of press….herehereherehere



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Unintended Consequences in Utah?

A nice look at the collateral damage likely to occur as a result of HB477:

While much of the focus of the controversial HB477 has been on how it might affect the public’s access to state lawmakers, the new law may also potentially affect thousand of residents in a much more direct way.

Local police departments typically receive hundreds and even thousands of requests for reports and records each year through the Government Records Access and Management Act. But the majority of those requests do not come from the media.

“A very small percentage,” Rick Fletcher, records coordinator for the Unified Police Department, said of the number of GRAMA requests he receives from the media versus the requests that come from the public.

Whether HB477 will ultimately affect both the media and the public’s access to police records isn’t completely clear. Attorney Jeffrey Hunt, an expert on GRAMA, said the new law — which goes into effect July 1 — does not create any new specific exceptions for law enforcement information.

“However, it would greatly restrict the public’s access to crime information. Any text messages, instant messages or similar electronic records created by law enforcement officers would be totally off limits to the public, even if those records concerned criminal reports, incidents or other public matters,” he said. “This would essentially create an entire category of electronic law enforcement records that would be secret and off limits to the public.”

It begs the question: did anyone who voted for this disaster stop for a nanosecond to consider its scope?


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Five Starting Points for Cleaning Up The Mess in Utah

FOI guru Joel Campbell weighs in with a reasonable starting point for discussion in Utah.