Citizens file for referendum on controversial records bill HB477

Published: Thursday, March 10 2011 3:58 p.m. MST

Protesters gather Thursday, March 10, 2011 at the Utah State Capitol for "Shine the Light on Government" Rally to repeal HB477.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of citizens has filed an application seeking to have HB477, a controversial bill restricting access to many government records, go to a referendum.

The group, not affiliated with any formal organization, submitted the paperwork to the lieutenant governor's office Thursday, according to Janalee Tobias, a longtime gun-rights and open-space advocate.

Tobias said her group was not partisan and included a Democrat with whom she disagreed on most other issues.

"He hates guns, I love guns, but we're both here together on this issue," she said.

Public demonstrations against HB477 didn't end Thursday with the application. A rally at the Capitol in the evening escalated into a march into the House, where protesters sang and chanted.

A referendum application can be filed no later than five days after the end of the legislative session. But Tobias said the group was also trying to act before Gov. Gary Herbert signed SB165, which bans electronic petition signatures.

The governor signed SB165 about 1 p.m. Thursday, hours after the HB477 referendum petition was filed. It was unclear whether that would allow the use of e-signatures in the referendum drive. SB165 took effect immediately since it passed both houses with a two-thirds majority.

Under SB165, the group must gather signatures in at least 15 counties equal to 10 percent of voters in the last presidential election by April 19, 40 days after the end of the legislative session. Previously, the number was 10 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election. That would have lowered the bar significantly because far fewer voters participated in last year's special election for governor.

Herbert signed the government records access bill Tuesday evening, delaying its effective date to July 1 and ignoring pleas for a veto from protesters who gathered in the Capitol earlier that day.

The Legislature fast-tracked the bill last week, pushing through wide-ranging changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) just two days after they were unveiled.

HB477 largely exempts the Legislature and several forms of electronic communication from GRAMA, increases fees for records requests and removes language favoring openness. Under pressure from Herbert and after fielding angry calls and e-mails from constituents, legislators postponed the effective date on Monday.

They promised to convene a working group including members of the press and public to study GRAMA after the session. That group will make recommendations to interim committees in time for a planned special legislative session in June.

Herbert has said he expects the law to ultimately look different than the changes that HB477 is set to usher in on July 1.

A group of protesters rallying in the plaza north of the Capitol Thursday night, began a strategic push to collect the 65,000 signatures required to complete the referendum. They collected names and contact information of protesters who they hope will lead a grass-roots effort to get the signatures by April 19.

About an hour-and-a-half into the rally, more than 200 protesters marched into the Capitol building chanting, "shame" and  "repeal" to the beat of a drum. Tim DeChristopher, the environmental activist that was convicted last week for monkey wrenching a Bureau of Land Management auction, was among the marchers.

"It wasn't envisioned ahead of time," said Matt Pacenza the policy director of the Healthy Environmental Alliance of Utah and one of the organizers of the rally. "There was sort of a spontaneous urging for the people there to go in and make their voices heard."

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