SALT LAKE CITY — A working group considering changes to the state's open-records law met for the first time Wednesday and sketched out its agenda, following an admonition by Gov. Gary Herbert that their deliberations should be open and transparent.
No formal action was taken as participants — lawmakers, media representatives and other members of the public — voiced their views about changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act and the concerns that led to the passage of the controversial HB477.
Some said they want to use new technology to better archive and access records. Others want to address who should bear the costs of producing and copying records.
Underlying the entire discussion of the 25-member panel was the question of where to draw the line between what is public and private.
The group was named earlier this week after Herbert and House GOP leadership agreed to repeal the bill, which imposes tighter restrictions on public access to government documents, including increasing fees for document requests.
Herbert, who called a special session for Friday to repeal the bill, addressed the group asking them to participate in "good faith" after weeks of rancor and public outcry over the fast-tracked legislation.
"This should be the most open, deliberative, transparent discussion on any issue maybe in recent memory here in the state of Utah," Herbert said. "I believe that a good process will lead to a good outcome."
The working group will meet every Wednesday for the next several weeks.
"Take as long as necessary to get the job done, but no longer," Herbert said.
Also on Wednesday, the Alliance for Unity, a group of Utah business, religious and community leaders, issued a statement in support of Herbert's call to repeal the law and replace it with a new bill including input from the working group.
"While recognizing there may be merit in modifying some out-of-date aspects of GRAMA, the Alliance is firmly of the view that the public's business must be done in public," an Alliance statement said. "Attempts to deny the public's access to open records are not in the public's interest, regardless of one's political beliefs. Furthermore, such attempts are not in the interest of freedom."
The statement is signed by Archie Archuleta, community activist; Pamela Atkinson, community activist; Elder M. Russell Ballard, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker; Cunthis Buckingham, executive director of the Utah Humanities Council; Rev. France A. Davis, Calvary Baptist Church; Spencer F. Eccles, chairman emeritus of Wells Fargo Bank; Jon M. Huntsman, executive chairman of Huntsman Corp.; Norma Matheson, former first lady of Utah; Alexander B. Morrison, Alliance executive director; Dinesh Patel, vSpring Capital; Harris H. Simmons, president of Zions Bankcorp.; W. Dean Singleton, publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune; Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City; and University of Utah President Michael K. Young.
Lawmakers have said they need to modernize the 20-year-old GRAMA to keep private and personal conversations — which now frequently take place through text messages — out of the public eye. What, they ask, is a conversation and what is a record?
"We need answers to the questions and ambiguity that the technologies of the 21st century have created," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, told the group.
The panel's chairman, Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie, said he hopes it will not be "tied up" in discussion of the bill's possible repeal, which could take place Friday. House Republicans have said they will repeal HB477, and 13 senators have said publicly they will as well, two short of the number needed.
Repeal would blunt a referendum drive against HB477 that the Deseret Media Companies, which include the Deseret News and KSL, are supporting.
In a new argument, some legislators now say their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure are violated whenever staff rummage through their email and records to comply with a GRAMA request.
"We all have rights," Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, told the panel. "People have a right to privacy in their private and business dealings."
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said he has four different lives — his public life as a part-time legislator, his private life, his professional life as an accountant and his ecclesiastical life as a church leader — and only records from the first should be available.
Other members of the group, however, said any communication on a device paid for by the public should be open to disclosure, while personal conversations should remain on a separate, personal device. They said there are already privacy protections in GRAMA.
"This is the work you've chosen," radio host and blogger Jason Williams told the legislators, arguing that the records law should not be whatever makes them feel comfortable.
The group's discussions are sure to delve into fine legal distinctions. In Wednesday's meeting, lawyers for the Legislature and the attorney general could not even agree on what the current law says about whether personal notes legislators write to themselves while considering policy are considered public records.
Another focus will be two Utah Supreme Court cases decided in 2008 that granted access to records: one involving a report sought by the Deseret News on alleged sexual harassment by Salt Lake County employees, and another about maps sought by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in a dispute over rural roads.
Lawmakers have said they included a provision in HB477 to strip "intent language" favoring openness from GRAMA in an effort to prevent courts from deciding what should be public.
The group may split up in future sessions to consider each bundle of issues separately. It will ultimately make recommendations to a legislative interim committee, which will draft a new bill in time for another special session in June.
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