Earlier this month, Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert signed off on a controversial bill which made changes to the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). GRAMA allows citizens to request the disclosure of certain public records. The new bill, HB477, makes changes to GRAMA by shrinking the definition of what constitutes a public record while also broadening lawmaker’s ability to keep their records secret. In addition to those changes, HB477 also imposes new fees for accessing the remaining public records. The bill’s passage set off a firestorm of public opposition which ultimately led Governor Herbert to call a special session to repeal the bill.
Those who oppose HB477 say that these changes hamper government transparency at a critical time as the state prepares to begin redistricting. One of the key changes in HB477 keeps electronic communication such as email and text messages, secret. Unless electronic communications are officially recognized, instant messages, video chats and text messages will not be considered public records and therefore subject to GRAMA. This exemption essentially frees lawmakers from being compelled to disclose these communications as records at any point, effectively creating a completely secret back channel for communication about issues in the public interest. The opposition also claims that imposing additional fees for access creates an unfair curb on the public’s right to know.
The bill originally made it through the legislature with little discussion or debate which only served to fuel public opposition to the measure.
In his announcement the Governor cited the public’s reaction as his reason for recall. “It is clear to me that HB477, both in process and substance, has resulted in a loss of public confidence,” the Governor said. “By repealing HB477 and forming a working group, the Utah State Legislature now has the opportunity to work with the media and the public to restore that confidence.”
On Friday, the Utah legislature will reconvene to repeal HB477. The working group will take up any further changes to GRAMA. The Governor has asked the working group to focus on three principles in its deliberations, specifically that modifications to GRAMA must protect the public’s right to know, an individuals right to privacy and keep the overall costs of these requests low.
The working group, will be chaired by Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce President Lane Beattie, who was Senate majority leader when the original GRAMA law was adopted. The membership will be composed of appointed legislators, members of the media, the Governor’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, local governments and the public.