SALT LAKE CITY — A new online portal that launched Wednesday allows Utah legislators to publicly share their emails.
Sen. Curtis Bramble, a Provo Republican, sponsored legislation in 2013 that created the portal.
Bramble said Tuesday that the system is a tool lawmakers can use to save time and money and increase transparency.
It's unclear how much correspondence will be shared in the online portal, which can be found at http://le.utah.gov.
The system is voluntary, and lawmakers can choose which emails to share. They can also choose to remove their messages from the portal once they've shared them, Bramble said.
The need for such a system arose after a public records dispute with Utah Democrats over redistricting, he said.
The state Democratic Party filed a records request in 2011 seeking 16,000 pages of emails and correspondence between lawmakers, the Republican Party and others regarding the redrawing of state and congressional districts.
Democrats paid an initial fee of $5,000 for some of the records and were later told the fee rose to more than $14,000 because of how much time staff spent complying with the request.
The party then sued for the documents, which were released in November 2012.
Bramble said he spent four or five hours sifting through emails to comply with the request.
With the online portal, lawmakers could instead make all relevant emails public and let anyone who's interested go through them.
The portal will also cut down the large fees for those making voluminous requests, he said.
"It seems intuitively obvious that if there's a way to make those records available electronically, that could make the process more transparent," he said. "But it would also put the burden on the individual making the request."
Lawmakers typically only get a handful of public records requests every year, Bramble said, but they may also use the system if there's anything they'd like to share with the public.
"This just adds one more alternative for legislators if they choose to use it to help shine the light on our process," he said.
Transparency and access to public records is still a sensitive subject in Utah.
In 2011, the Legislature drew public fury when it passed and then quickly repealed a restrictive public records bill.
After the bill's repeal, a group of lawmakers, including Bramble, and representatives of the media and public interest groups held meetings to discuss potential changes to the state's open records law.
Rep. Brian King, a Salt Lake City Democrat who also sat on the open records panel, said Tuesday that he thinks the online portal is a good idea, but it remains to be seen how much correspondence lawmakers will make available.
Regardless, he said the online portal is a "positive step" and he expects to see additional bills dealing with public records in the future.
"Out of the ashes of a negative experience," he said, "I think what we've come up with is some real progress."
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