GRAMA group looks at cost of records requests

Published: Wednesday, April 27 2011 5:13 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The working group considering changes to the state's open-records law split into subcommittees Wednesday to examine different topics.

One group, led by former Deseret News managing editor LaVarr Webb, clustered around a table in a small room to discuss the cost of records requests made under the Government Records Access and Management Act, and quickly reached some common ground.

Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, the sponsor of the controversial HB477, the Legislature's last-minute attempt to modernize — and some would say gut — GRAMA, sat across from Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government and one of that bill's most vocal critics.

They and other participants agreed there should be a central, online clearinghouse where records that are clearly public, such as meeting agendas and minutes and annual financial reports, would be freely available.

That could eliminate some GRAMA requests and help to narrow some of the larger "outlier" requests by making basic information widely available.

Still, Dougall warned that the Legislature, which HB477 would have largely exempted from GRAMA, will continue to receive complex, time-consuming requests because of the difficult issues it tackles.

"We're living in the world of outlier cases," he said.

He argued for ways to recover costs of fulfilling those requests. Currently, an agency can only charge the staff costs of the lowest-paid employee qualified to respond to a GRAMA request, regardless of who actually does the work.

"It can't be a revenue-maker," Dougall said. "But it should be the actual cost."

Others fear that charging administrative and overhead costs will force requesters to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for staff attorneys who often review records before they are released.

Webb's subcommittee agreed Wednesday that government bodies should make clear up front how much they will charge for staff time.

Some advocates of GRAMA reform want to clamp down on fee waivers given to the media and anyone else who can show that disclosing the records they want will benefit the public. They say any blogger can now claim to be in the media and demand records for free.

Other possible cost controls include preventing lawyers from fishing for information to use in litigation at the taxpayers' expense.

Mark Johnson, a representative of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said he will check with local governments to see what kind of records they could include in the database. With employees of Ogden, where he works, sending and receiving a million emails a month, it would be impractical to include each one, he said. The city is also digitizing 20,000 documents a month, he said, according to which need to be retained under state law.

The state already maintains a centralized listing of all public meetings.

Webb said that regardless of the changes legislators make to GRAMA, possibly during a special session in June, some records disputes will still end up in court.

"We're not going to be able to tie this all up in a neat little package," he said.

E-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com

Twitter: pbkdn

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