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GRAMA panel considers creation of state records ombudsman

Published: Wednesday, March 30 2011 1:55 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A group brainstorming changes to Utah's open-records law reacted warmly Wednesday to a suggestion to create a state ombudsman for public records.

The position, in the office of either the attorney general or the state archivist, would serve as a sounding board for questions from both Utah residents and government officials on how to resolve thorny records requests.

Craig Call, a former legislator who served in a similar position dealing with property-rights issues, presented the idea to the working group formed in the wake of HB477. That bill died Tuesday when Gov. Gary Herbert signed a repeal measure, passed by lawmakers in special session last week, that nixes sweeping changes they had wanted to make to the Government Records Access and Management Act.

The group is mulling how to balance the public's right to access records with privacy concerns expressed by legislators and the cost of both managing and producing documents. It is also looking for ways to reduce the time and money spent on appeals of records requests, including voluminous "outlier" requests that officials say consume too many resources.

Call said he was successful as Utah's property-rights ombudsman in answering questions from private citizens and business owners, especially over state efforts to acquire property. He said his office cut the number of such cases that ended up as eminent-domain lawsuits from 25 percent to just 6 percent.

"It added new ways to provide information and resolve issues," Call said, arguing that access can head off costly litigation. "Informed people make wise decisions."

Media attorney Jeff Hunt said he already has a GRAMA hotline that fields about five calls a week from residents seeking advice on how to make a request, as well as city attorneys who want to make sure they are disclosing records properly. He said a records ombudsman could "create a more visible point for those questions."

The panel also took comments Wednesday from activists and nonprofit organizations, who called for uniform practices in responding to records requests. Some appeals go to the State Records Committee, while others require a court challenge.

Representatives of the Utah League of Cities and Towns said local governments handle most requests easily, but "outliers" — such as a request for all parking enforcement actions in Salt Lake City since 2000 — strain the ability of employees, who may not be adequately trained on GRAMA, to interpret the law correctly.

"In the main, GRAMA is a burden, but it's a burden like snowplowing," a public service that must be performed regardless of cost, said league attorney David Church.

Some group members who are well-versed in technology and social media, including prominent blogger Jesse Stay and Phil Windley, the state's former chief information officer, suggested that more public documents be automatically available online.

But Mark Johnson, Ogden's management services director, pointed to the cost in his city, which is already digitizing 20,000 documents a month.

"I think it's a bigger job than you think," he said.

The group will next meet April 13. It hopes to make recommendations to legislative interim committees to draft a new records bill for a special session this summer.

To keep updated on the group, visit its website.

E-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com

Twitter: pbkdn

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