A year after a controversial attempt to constrict Utah's open records laws, the Legislature has now quietly and diligently forged changes that not only bolster the principle of open government, but also work to prevent frustration from bubbling over again in the future.
The passage of SB177, now signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, might be viewed as something of an about-face after the debacle unleashed by efforts to dismantle important provisions of the law in 2010.
But in fairness, the resulting year-long focus on the Government Records Access and Management Act is more properly viewed as an example of how the legislative process should work, particularly when contention and controversy are afoot at every turn.
Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, deftly shepherded amendments to GRAMA that will serve to enhance the responsiveness of the state's public records apparatus. Commendably, the amendments also make a strong statement about the inherent principle, contained in the original law's enabling clause, that records generated in the service of the public should be presumed to be open to the public.
The amendments serve to elucidate on that very critical point, making it clear that a "record shall be disclosed when the public interest in disclosure is equal to or greater than the interests in non-disclosure."
SB177 also includes a mechanism to formally resolve such disputes with the creation of a government records ombudsman. The current process for resolution is sometimes cumbersome and inconsistent from agency to agency.
Likewise, the new amendments require records custodians undergo annual online training on how to manage public records requests. That will go far toward streamlining and clarifying the disclosure and inspection process.
The original attempt to overhaul the law was fueled in part by frustrations among legislative leaders over potential abuses of GRAMA by media and others who might employ the law as a way to peek into a public official's private doings or wield it as a weapon of intimidation.
The process that led to SB177 included the work of a task force that met to allow a full venting of those concerns and the vetting of a large number of proposed solutions.
It is proof that the legislative process, when calmly and assiduously applied, can result in practical and potent solutions. In this case, it has brought closure to a once divisive debate and left in its place a body of law both the Legislature and citizenry can be proud of.
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