Despite broad language that appears quite benevolent, state laws that give Utahns access to public documents are scattered throughout the Utah Code, leaving some uncertainties about what can legitimately be kept secret and what can not. And not all political entities appear to be covered.
In an effort to pull all public access laws together, to broaden their scope, to be more specific, and to eliminate inconsistencies, an omnibus 52-page bill has been introduced after almost two years of work by lawmakers, and representatives of state agencies, political subdivisions, public interest groups, the media and business.Given that preparation, the bill, the Government Records Access and Management Act - better known as GRAMA, for obvious reasons - ought to sail through the Legislature.
But there is some resistance and closed-door lobbying by several state agencies that - while they wouldn't admit it publicly - don't want to be saddled with answering frequent public requests for copies of documents and records.
Despite that foot-dragging, GRAMA is an excellent piece of work that would expand the public's right to peer into dusty corners and ask for copies in government files, with some reasonable exceptions.
If passed, the legislation would apply to nearly all records of state agencies and political subdivisions like cities, towns, counties, etc., and would include the judiciary and the Legislature, which were not previously covered by public access law.
The bill expressly states that "All records are public unless otherwise expressly provided by statute." There is an automatic presumption that all records are open unless other clearly-defined interests outweigh the public's right to know.
If a public record contains certain information that is entitled to be restricted, GRAMA says an agency would have to release the public portion while withholding the restricted information. In other words, an entire document could not be held back just because a paragraph or so has restricted data.
GRAMA would allow documents to be restricted if they contain personal information, medical records and certain confidential business data.
Personal notes, temporary drafts and other writings also would be exempt.
The law would permit "reasonable fees" to be charged for copies of documents, but agencies could not levy a fee just for deciding if a record could be disclosed or simply allowing a person to inspect a record. Fees could be waived if disclosure of information benefits the public instead of the individual making the request.
The bill would require most agencies to respond to a request for records within 10 working days, unless exceptional circumstances were involved, such as voluminous papers or lengthy research. Requests from the news media would be handled within five working days.
Generally, GRAMA would make obtaining public records from state and local government easier and the rules more explicit. For the sake of an open and honest society - and less confusion about public documents and legitimate access to them - the measure ought to be adopted.