Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Social media thwarted Utah lawmakers' plans

Published: Sunday, March 13 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Near the end of the legislative session, Utah lawmakers quickly pushed through an overhaul of Utah's open records laws. But barely 48 hours later, the legislation was recalled. What happened?

Pignanelli:"I fear three newspapers more than 100,000 bayonets." — Napoleon. The Tea Party Movement, The Scott Brown Senate election, rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt... the 2011 Utah State Legislature. These are recent examples of when 21st-century technologies, combined with traditional media, have irreversibly changed a political trajectory. (Yeah, this sounds overblown, but even LaVarr agrees.)

As a former lawmaker, I "feel the pain" legislators suffer when attempting to comply with the Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) — which I cosponsored during my legislative career. At the end of each session, I sorted and packed all meaningful documents into a box — in anticipation of a GRAMA request that never happened. (I spent more time determining which freebies to take home.) Of course, today's officials have a 1,000-fold greater burden since GRAMA was established. They must worry about retaining e-mails, electronic documents, text messages, etc. Also, some journalists and bloggers are using GRAMA to demand access to thousands of records, often at great cost. The Capitol is reverberating with horror stories of "GRAMA abuse."

These are legitimate concerns ... which were not shared with the public before HB477 was revealed. As a lobbyist for the Utah Media Coalition/Utah Press Association, I can state there was no request to meet and resolve the issues beforehand. Indeed, the leaders of these organizations were surprised as to the extent of some GRAMA requests. There were smaller GRAMA scuffles in prior sessions, but the press and legislators always reached an accord.

By hard-wiring HB477 for passage in the last full week of the session, most Capitol Hill veteran politicos predicted the Legislature had achieved victory. Sure, those newspaper dinosaurs would scream and shout, but the public would not care about the nuances of some bizarre thing called GRAMA. (Even I was unsure as to shelf-life of the issue) No one predicted the outcome.

The 2011 Legislature deserves credit for fulfilling a hearty agenda: nationally recognized immigration reform, Medicaid cost controls, mission-based funding for higher education, public education reform, expanded accountability in state and local government. These accomplishments will be contrasted with the mistake to not make the GRAMA case to their constituents.

The controversy surrounding HB477 is a "learning opportunity" for all Utahns. Newspapers, and their affiliated Internet resources, remain very influential — as do television and radio media. Their concerns ignited the energy in blogging, Facebook, texting, etc. More importantly, Utahns across the political spectrum do care very deeply about open government — a wonderful revelation.

Webb: This was an amazing example of political "shock and awe" on both sides of this battle. It shows how social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, have forever changed politics.

To the surprise and dismay of the news media and government watchdog groups, lawmakers rammed through HB477. The deed was done quickly — planned and executed almost flawlessly to minimize pressure on lawmakers and strike before opponents had time to mobilize.

It worked — almost. News media lobbyists and groups were left wringing their hands, wailing that the sky was falling and wondering what hit them. Game over. Done deal. Pressure's off. All the governor had to do was quickly sign it. End of issue.

Sure, angry stories and editorials would be written (including an over-the-top Salt Lake Tribune front page editorial labeling Gov. Gary Herbert a pandering "political hack" if he didn't veto the legislation). But the average citizen really doesn't care whether a public employee's text messages are public documents. Sure, citizens will say they support transparency, but not one legislator would lose the next election over this relatively small issue. So, lawmakers appeared to have won.

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