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GRAMA Gets Run Over By Utah Governor

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, March 10 2011

Nearly all electronic communications between public employees in Utah may soon be exempt from public records requests there after the state legislature and governor, in the span of just a few days last week, introduced, considered and signed a wide-ranging bill into law that would remove much intra-governmental communication from public view.

After a swarm of calls and emails from the public, the state legislature recalled the bill and changed it so it would not take effect until July. Gov. Gary Herbert signed the modified bill into law on Tuesday.

With some exceptions, voice mails, instant messages, video chats and text messages would not be subject to Utah's Government Records Management Act — GRAMA for short — under the law, H.B. 477, according to the bill's summary text. Sponsored by state Rep. John Dougall, the bill also exempts records from the office of the state auditor and legislative auditor-general, "data and working papers associated with a fiscal note for legislation" until the legislation has passed, and internal communications and working papers of the governor's office, among a wide range of other records.

Ironically, the bill is a sharp about-face from Dougall's own previous statements in support of transparency. From his campaign website, he links to a blog asking for citizens of Utah to flag wasteful spending.

"You citizens are the ultimate government watchdogs," proclaims the blog, with a last posting date of 2009. Dougall signed his name to the site along with two state senators.

According to the Utah Daily Herald, Dougall now believes that legislators need more privacy in this new digital world:

The bill's sponsor, Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, explained that the bill would provide lawmakers with some privacy in the new electronic world. Dougall spoke of a hypothetical story of a constituent sending an e-mail to a lawmaker about a disease that their child has. That e-mail could potentially become public record and on "the front page of the newspaper" under current law. He also stated that under current law, work that legislative interns perform in gathering information for the lawmakers could also be obtained under the law.

Opponents of the bill pointed out that such information is already classed as private and would not be released under a GRAMA request. GRAMA only covers only official government activity, not private matters.

The bill contradicts movements in exactly the opposite direction from states like Oklahoma and New Hampshire — both of which, like Utah, which are dominated by Republicans. And it has angered transparency advocates.

"Politicians have learned to run on transparency," Sunlight Foundation* Policy Director John Wonderlich wrote yesterday on Sunlight's blog.

"But promises to be more open are worthless if they're followed by the opposite," he continued. "('Government as a platform' isn't supposed to mean "something you say to get elected")."

Hundreds of protestors rallied against the bill, and media in Utah are showing an arch response, too. When the bill was first passed last week, an ABC affiliate in the state confronted Utah Gov. Gary Herbert with a public record request for communications, including emails, related to the bill — exactly the type of information that would be removed from public view were the law put into effect.

Wonderlich pointed to similar moves to exempt records from public records laws in Maine and Tennessee, even as other governments are making it easier to access information about what they're doing — and to access that information on the Internet.

*Note: Our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.