Last year, Utah's Legislature changed the Government Records Access and Management Act, the state's venerable law governing public access to government records. Those changes, pushed through at the last minute of the session with minimal notice and hearing, set off a firestorm of popular protest that resulted in the Legislature being called back into session and repealing the changes.
On the heels of the repeal, and at the request of Gov. Gary Herbert, the leadership of the Legislature brought together a diverse panel of lawmakers, media representatives — including one from this newspaper — government officials and activists under the able leadership of former Senate President Lane Beattie. The working group was asked to identify practical concerns posed by the use of GRAMA and seek for possible solutions.
As this diverse working group met week after week throughout the spring of 2011, something marvelous occurred. Grandstanding transformed into listening, listening into understanding and understanding into problem solving. On some issues there were clear conceptual divides and members of the group could only agree to disagree. But most of the issues on the table proved tractable and the working group was able to present legislative leadership a set of consensus recommendations that helped to clarify and strengthen GRAMA.
Yesterday, Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, introduced amendments to GRAMA based on those consensus recommendations. His bill, SB177, thoughtfully accomplishes four major objectives.
First, it requires online training and certification of state records officers to improve the consistency and accuracy of compliance with the law.
Second, the bill creates a state public records ombudsman to assist requestors and responders through the sometimes-complex process of dealing with government records requests.
Third, it eliminates inconsistent language within the statute, harmonizing statutory language with the act's intent language and with subsequent court cases.
Finally, the bill makes several needed technical adjustments such as clarifying that public records do not include communications unrelated to the conduct of the public's business and stating with greater precision how the attorney-client privilege applies to GRAMA.
Bramble deserves special commendation for doing the hard work of taking conceptual language and crafting it into detailed legislation that perfectly reflects the substance of the working group's consensus. The fact that Bramble's bill has received the support of the Utah Foundation for Open Government and the Utah Media Coalition speaks volumes about Bramble's legislative leadership on what was, less than one year ago, the single most contentious issue in Utah politics.
We fully support SB177. It clarifies and strengthens Utah's already strong commitment to transparency in government and demonstrates the good that can be accomplished through genuine deliberation, leadership and hard work.