New GRAMA bill would create state 'records ombudsman'

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 15 2012 8:14 p.m. MST

Utah State Capitol, Jan. 25, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill introduced Wednesday in the Senate would amend Utah's open records law, creating a state records ombudsman to assist the public in making records requests.

The proposal would also require government officials who handle records request to take an online training course and receive certification each year.

SB177 is the result of a working group set up to review proposed changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act after lawmakers ran into a buzz saw of opposition last year after attempting sweeping changes that largely cut off public access to government records.

Jeff Hunt, an attorney with the Utah Media Coalition, reacted favorably to the proposal.

"Our take on it is we're very pleased with the direction the bill takes," Hunt said, adding that open records advocates are continuing working with Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, the bill's sponsor.

In working out the bill's details, Hunt said his main concern was over language that defines what records of government litigation would not be public.

The proposal had used the phrase "anticipated litigation," which is too broad, Hunt said. The version released Wednesday instead would restrict access to records subjct to "reasonably anticipated, imminent, or pending litigation."

"It will be 300 times more popular than 477," Bramble said, referring the House bill lawmakers passed then repealed in 2011 in response to the public outcry.

SB177 also formally codifies the "balancing test," into the GRAMA law. That test requires public disclosure of a record when the public benefit "is greater or equal to the interests in restricting access."

In the wake of last year's controversy, Gov. Gary Herbert and GOP leaders agreed to appoint a working group made up of government, media and public representatives, including lawyers and technology experts, that spent three months examining ways to improve the act, which is two decades old.

One of the group's recommendations was to create the position of an obudsman. Under Bramble's proposal, the ombudsman working out of the Division of Archives and Records Service would "serve as a resource for a person who is making or responding to a records request" and would "attempt to mediate disputes between requestors and responders."

Herbert said last week he would create the ombudsman position by executive order if the Legislature doesn't approve it in the bill. He said the state could absorb the costs in the archives office.

"From my perspective any bill that touches GRAMA needs to improve it, especially after last year's disaster," Hunt said.

E-mail: lbrubaker@desnews.com, romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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