You go, Utah Public Records Working Group. You go!

Today’s update from Utah (thanks, Brooke!) is full of all kinds of news, not the least of which is training and an ombuds…

A lot of ideas are still in flux, but one has gained consensus: More education would help requesters, responders and government officials alike understand how Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act works.

Two different subcommittees of the GRAMA Working Group are recommending that lawmakers require record officers and other employees who handle requests to go through an annual certification program about the law’s provisions.

That training, said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, would ensure legislators “have information about how GRAMA, as it currently exists, works.”

Likewise, it might reassure records officers and others who routinely handle requests that they are making the right decisions, group members said.

There also needs to be a better way to educate the public about what records are available, what limitations there is on information and how to access records, said Mark Johnson, director of management services for Ogden and a working group member.

The GRAMA Working Group, appointed by legislative leadership, is reviewing ways to improve the state’s open records law following a public uproar over now-repealed HB 477.

Dave and I in the first four grafs = FOI goodness

I love it when Dave and I are in the first four grafs of a story!

Whenever Charles Davis speaks to government officials, business leaders, lawmakers and journalists, he holds out Utah’s open-records law as one of the best in the nation.

“It is incredibly user-friendly,” said Davis, a records expert and associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “What I like about the law is its clarity, precision of language and its relatively few exemptions.”

The law is now up for review as the GRAMA Working Group gets to labor on 36 policy questions aimed at bringing Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act into the 21st century. The 25-member group meets for the second time Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Capitol.

On Friday, legislators repealed HB477, which most notably changed language that presumed records were closed unless someone requesting a document successfully argued otherwise. The short-lived law earned the state a Black Hole Award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ national chapter. David Cuillier, chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, said that, based on the revisions, he would knock Utah from 13th to 51st for transparency among states.

A Look At Utah’s Records Committee…

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This is the first in a series of stories The Slat lake Tribune is doing on the state’s public records law, and it has a great anecdotal opening:

In 1992, the first appeal brought before the State Records Committee under Utah’s newly adopted open-records law came from The Salt Lake Tribune, which wanted the Department of Transportation to hand over a year’s worth of traffic-accident reports stored on nine-track computer tape.

That’s right, nine-track tape.

In the two decades since, the committee has settled about 218 records disputes using the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) to sort out competing interests, even as data moved from tapes to floppy disks to instant messages and email.

 

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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!