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Lois M. Collins: Lawmakers' imperious view of public access

Published: Thursday, March 10 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Tuesday, after lawmakers looked down from the upper floors of the state Capitol on a protest against the bill that would strip much of the people's power to hold legislators accountable for what they do and with whom they form alliances, the governor signed that bill into law.

That picture kind of summarizes the issue at hand, for me.

Lawmakers looked down on their constituents.

That, in spite of the fact that nearly every thought expressed about HB477 by anyone but a legislator has conveyed extreme displeasure with not only the bill's content, but the unseemly haste with which it was passed.

HB477 restricts access to government records by exempting some forms of electronic communication, such as text messaging and voice mail, from the Government Records Access Management Act. It increases fees for GRAMA requests. It also tilts the balance in interpreting its intent away from transparency — something elected officials claim to care about a great deal.

And exempting types of communication based on the medium rather than the content is bizarre in an open government. It's like a blueprint for what to use if you want to do something shady. It's also weird given that those are such prevalent forms of communication these days.

Utah's governor criticized the haste with which the bill was passed and said he was going to carefully consider whether to sign or veto it. Then the bill early this week was "recalled" so that a new implementation date could be placed on it. With a promise that it will be fixed, Gary Herbert signed the thing.

Really? We sign now and fix later? Fixed how, and what's the guarantee it will be palatable?

I'm thrilled that the fast-track was slowed down and I hope legislators noted how well that worked out for them. But from where I'm sitting, I see no guarantee that very real public concerns will be addressed in a way that is helpful or curative. By signing it, he made it law. All that changes is the date. If the further discussion doesn't happen or no agreement is reached on changes, it kicks in anyway.

That's great public policy.

Even legislators seem a little embarrassed by the whole thing. Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, was quoted as saying that "Nobody likes to do this in an election year. So now is the time."

Makes sense. I know that I, for one, am too dumb to remember this when the election rolls around. What a relief.

If it was a fine piece of legislation, it probably didn't need to be crafted in a dark closet and then sprung near the last days of the session, then rushed through with little opportunity for public objection or input.

The claim has been the measure is necessary to rein in the naughty media from "fishing expeditions."

Wouldn't it be awful if someone were to tell the people, for instance, that they were paying greens fees for lawmakers' spouses or that sheriffs and police chiefs in some parts of the state were collecting their salaries, full retirement and a 401(k). Oh yeah, someone did: KSL. After using GRAMA to find out.

Should spouses' fees be covered or retirement in place allowed? Opinions vary. But certainly the public that's footing the bill has the right to know and voice an opinion.

Many who are not media use open records laws for a number of purposes. The law that lets me look lets you look, too.

As for the claim that "fishing expeditions" to "dig up dirt" need curtailed? If they were sure none could be found, I suspect they'd let us to dig for free.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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