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Lawmaker calls for repeal of HB477 as Utah gets "Black Hole" award for records law

Published: Thursday, March 17 2011 6:03 a.m. MDT

Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee Chairman David Cuillier has honored Utah with the Black Hole Award and a black wreath after the passage of HB477 at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, 2011. The Black Hole Award highlights government agencies or officials that flagrantly violate the letter or spirit of public record or meeting laws.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Carl Wimmer called Wednesday for the repeal of a controversial, fast-tracked bill restricting access to many government records.

The Herriman Republican said there should be changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act, but HB477 went too far. He supported the bill when it first passed the House, then flipped when an amended version delaying its effective date to July 1 came up for a vote.

"Quite frankly, I came down on the side of opposing the bill and opposing the concept as a whole. That's simply it. I had a change of heart," Wimmer said, adding that he compared current GRAMA laws to the effect HB477 would have on open record laws after he voted for the bill.

He said he was not pressured into his original vote, unlike Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, who apologized this week for his "yes" vote, saying he feared retaliation from House leadership.

The House first approved the bill 61-12, then amended it by a 42-29 vote.

Wimmer's comments came the same day Utah state government received a dubious recognition, as the national Society of Professional Journalists gave the state its first-ever "Black Hole Award" to highlight the new records law, which it said makes Utah the most secretive state in the nation.

HB477 restricts access to several forms of electronic communications, raises fees for records requests and removes language favoring openness. Lawmakers said the bill was needed to protect private communication with their constituents.

David Cuillier, a University of Arizona journalism professor, laid a wreath on the Capitol steps to mark the award given on behalf of the 8,000-member group, the nation's largest journalism nonprofit organization.

"Unanimous decision, slam dunk. We have to give this award to Utah," Cuillier said. "This was so egregious. The worst legislation we've ever seen, probably since World War II."

Cuillier said without open government, democracy is at risk.

"We've got to know what our government is up to," he said. "If we don't, you might as well just call it quits, have a dictatorship. Really, that's what stands between us and an authoritarian regime."

In a statement calling the distinction "undeserved," Gov. Gary Herbert's spokeswoman said, "The Legislature first passed this bill with a veto-proof majority. Were it not for the governor's action, the original HB477 would take effect. What the governor signed was an amended HB477, and because of his leadership, we now have a process to remedy HB477."

Herbert signed the bill last week and said he would bring together stakeholders this summer to craft better rules in advance of a special session.

Advocates for repealing the law plan to hold a press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill to kick off a referendum drive.

E-mail: pnelson@desnews.com, jdaley@desnews.com

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