Last year was a rough one for Salt Lake County officials, but those who advocate open government say the scandals that rocked the county in 2004 were a good exercise in doing the public's business in the open.

The alleged misuse of county vehicles was tied to the access and public examination of documents deemed public under the Government Records and Management Act (GRAMA). Open government also played an important part in the investigation of former county mayor Nancy Workman's use of county funds, from the discussion of the allegations to court hearings and the resulting trial when Workman faced felony charges and ultimately was found not guilty.

"It's a question of accountability," said Salt Lake attorney and open government advocate Jeff Hunt, who said open government protects against both abuse of public funds as well as shines light upon possible political maneuvering.

"The examples of what's been going on in Salt Lake County certainly shows the public need to look at what's going on with government officials and what they do with taxpayer funds," said Tony Musci, chairman of Common Cause of Utah, a group concerned with holding government officials accountable for their decisions and actions.

Musci said the fact that much of the allegations that came out of Salt Lake County scandals proved embarrassing and shameful at the least, shows that democracy is not a smooth ride but rather filled with bumps.

"The very essence of democracy is difficult. There's always a natural inclination for people to promote the easy way out, and that always leads to setting up the potential for abuse," Musci said.

When a former employee brought sexual harassment allegations against chief deputy Salt Lake County clerk Nick Floros, some argued that details of the investigation by District Attorney David Yocom should be opened to the public.

The Deseret Morning News filed suit against the county last January, arguing the public has an interest in examining the behavior of public officials as well as the time and level in which such alleged behavior was investigated and treated. Some county officials have argued that the matter should be treated as a personnel issue and therefore kept private. A court ruling is yet to come.

In light of scandal, newly elected county mayor Peter Caroon has vowed to keep county business transparent, offering to hold open-door meetings at the mayor's office.

"I think open government allows wrongdoing to be shed into the public light and when you have a government that lies in secrecy it usually is a sign that there's something amiss," he said.

"I think (the scandals) came to light because of the laws that require open government and open access to records."

Yet the mayor draws the line when it comes to the sexual harassment investigation, which has been split down partisan lines as to how public it should be.

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"There are areas where we could have people's personal and private information released," Caroon said. "I feel someone's personal life overrides the importance of having open records."

In order for public officials to continue to be held accountable to the public, Musci said it's up to the public and press to continue to take an interest in their governments.


E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com