State Records Committee: little noticed, but key GRAMA battleground

Published: Monday, April 18 2011 6:17 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — For disputed records requests in the Beehive State, a small hearing room at the Utah State Archives is where the rubber meets the road.

It's where the State Records Committee, a seven-member volunteer panel, met last week to weigh public and private interests, debate the meaning of court decisions and parse subsections of state law for more than three hours — all for a single case.

An attorney said his client needed access to investigative files from the state Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division in order to argue against creditors in a bankruptcy case. A state attorney agreed to turn over several files, but argued that one should be protected because it concerned an active investigation and prosecution.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that the attorney's client was the complainant in that investigation relating to an alleged car-dealer scam, meaning he had a direct interest in it.

The committee wrestled back and forth over whether the state agency could adopt a blanket policy for all open investigations. Its members proposed, reworded and voted up or down a number of motions until they reached a nuanced decision: The man would get the file, but much of the information he wanted would be blacked out to protect witnesses' identities.

It's a role the committee quietly plays at least four times a year, resolving disputes over requests made under the state's Government Records Access and Management Act. It made 23 decisions last year and has made four so far this year, including Thursday's, granting or denying access to media outlets, nonprofit groups and private citizens.

But some committee members feel their work has gone unappreciated in rancorous debate over proposed changes to GRAMA.

The committee does not have a representative on the working group convened to recommend changes to the law after the controversial HB477 was repealed in a special legislative session. A letter requesting a seat on the panel and requesting that the GRAMA discussion go to an interim study committee was sent to legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert a month ago.

"What we got was nothing," committee Chairwoman Betsy Ross said at Thursday's meeting. "We've heard nothing at all. ... It would have been nice to have gotten a response."

Ross has previously said she was concerned with the haste with which HB477 was first passed, and with its removal of intent language the committee relies upon to make many of its decisions. But she stressed she did not speak for the committee as a whole, and indeed, members on Thursday did not agree on whether to wade into the debate.

"I'm not sure I want to make position statements," said Lex Hemphill, the committee's media representative. "I'm not sure how much we want to partake in this process."

Still, the working group's recommendations, and the resulting legislation expected to be debated in a special session in June, could affect the State Records Committee directly.

In new questions for the group to consider, the attorney general's office asked whether the burden on the committee is too great and whether its makeup is appropriate for its task. State attorneys believe the committee should have more experts on records access and fewer on records management, such as the state archivist.

The group has also talked about possibly establishing a state records ombudsman to act as an informal mediator to resolve disputes.

Ross said the committee could take a position on changes to GRAMA, but probably not until a new bill is drafted. Committee member Scott Whittaker, a private records manager, said he would be eager to speak in favor of keeping GRAMA's intent language, which tilts the balance in favor of disclosure in a case of competing interests.

"How many people have to actually interpret the law like we do?" he said. "I do think we should have some opinion. ... We're the ones who have to deal with it later on."

Email: pkoepp@desnews.com

Twitter: pbkdn

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