Gov. Gary Herbert has the right idea. His decision to call a special legislative session this Friday in order to repeal the controversial HB477 would erase an unpopular bill he correctly said has "resulted in a loss of public confidence." Once it is repealed, there could then be an open, public deliberative process to consider if there is a need to update the state's Government Records Access and Management Act.
Absent a repeal, forces that favor draconian changes to the law embodied in HB477 would hold the upper hand. All sides would know that the bill automatically would become law on July 1, putting the pressure squarely on the shoulders of those who advocate for greater openness. That group, by the way, includes an overwhelming majority of the public. A recent Deseret News/KSL-TV poll found 83 percent said text messages on public business should be accessible, and 61 percent opposed raising fees for records requests. HB477 would, among other things, close access to text messages and raise fees.
Rather than put the public at a disadvantage, why not bring them to the table where they should have been all along?
House leaders have agreed to repeal the bill in a Friday special session, but Senate President Michael Waddoups is balking, saying there is no reason to rush. We urge him to reconsider. If there was a rush, it was in the way HB477 was passed near the end of the legislative session, with little time allowed for public comment or debate. Removing such a bill causes no harm to the public, nor does it offend any notion of a proper public process. On the contrary, it allows for a thorough and transparent process to consider the state's records law and whether it needs revision.
That question, by the way, remains an open one. Some lawmakers speak of abuses under the old law, such as "fishing expeditions" by the media and others that take an enormous amount of time to satisfy. However, other than one large request presented to the city of Alta, concrete examples of this are scarce. Some of these concerns might indicate a lack of understanding of the current law, which already provides protection for private records.
It is true that such everyday communication activities as texting and video chats did not exist when the records law was drafted 20 years ago. That does not mean, however, that they automatically should be excluded from public view. Modern technology also has provided programs capable of handling large databases with ease. The process of rewriting the law, if such a thing is necessary, must include a thorough examination of ways government could comply with large requests more easily.
A 25-member working group, including a representative of Deseret Media Companies, has been assigned to consider revisions to the law. Members of that group must be allowed to consider what is best for the people of Utah without the threat of a deeply flawed HB477 hanging over their heads.