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Panel considers ombudsman for GRAMA

Published: Wednesday, May 11 2011 1:32 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the working group on the state's open records law discussed Wednesday creating an ombudsman position to help Utahns access government documents.

No decisions were made during Wednesday's meeting, the fifth since the group was formed to reconsider a vetoed bill that would have overhauled Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act.

But they are expected to wrap up their work at their next meeting, set for June 8. Gov. Gary Herbert has said lawmakers will be called into a special session this year to come up with new changes to GRAMA.

On Wednesday, the group that includes government officials, media representatives and citizens reviewed reports by four subcommittees focused on specific concerns.

The subcommittee, looking at ways to simplify records access, recommended establishing a new ombudsman position within the Utah State Archives and Records Service as a troubleshooter for citizens and government entities.

The governor's general counsel, John Pearce, said it makes sense "to have someone available day in and day out to help people with requests."

The recommendation stated the ombudsman primarily would be a resource to "inexperienced requestors" and would have the authority to mediate disputes between requestors and the responding government agencies.

Another working group member, Mark Johnson of the city of Ogden, questioned whether having an ombudsman would slow the process.

"I see it could be one more level of bureaucracy," Johnson said.

But another working group member, Paul Edwards, Deseret News editorial page editor, said the ombudsman "really is just a mediation resource" and not a gatekeeper.

The subcommittee also recommended making it clear that government entities showing a good faith effort in trying to comply with GRAMA requests would avoid criminal penalties.

Linda Peterson, editor with The Valley Journals and a member of the working group, suggested abolishing all criminal penalties for not complying with GRAMA.

"It's not a valuable tool for open government in Utah," Peterson said. She said the penalties should be eliminated because they have not been used to prosecute anyone.

Jeff Hunt, a media attorney and member of the working group, disagreed. "Just because no one's been prosecuted doesn't mean the concept is not a good one," he said.

Another subcommittee, charged with examining the impact of new technologies on the decades-old law, proposed taking a "wait and see" approach to dealing with text messages.

Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilkins, a working group member, suggested not waiting to tackle the issue of whether to consider text messages as public records.

"If you don't, the courts will because it's already the subject of requests," Wilkins said. He said "it's the guts of how we define a record in the 21st century."

Also discussed by the working group was how to differentiate which records should automatically be public and which need further review.

Pearce said only a "small sliver" of documents are ever requested. "We don't have to get down in the weeds on documents nobody is ever going to care about."

Email: averzello@desnews.com; lisa@desnews.com

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