Staff column: Times change: GRAMA needs modernization
We're big fans of Mark Twain around here. So it is with some trepidation that we ignore some of his most popular advice which is to "never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel."
Utah's open records laws were groundbreaking in 1992. And we applaud elected officials as well as members of the public who crafted the laws. The Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) has played and will continue to play a significant role in ensuring that the people of Utah can keep an eye on what their government is doing in Utah.
Because of GRAMA, the public has access to everything from memos, to audio files of meetings, to some police records. The records have been used to right many wrongs and shed light on the public workings of government, which we are not ashamed to admit is not always perfect.
But a funny thing happened over the past 20 years: Technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. The Internet was barely a buzzword in 1992 and cell phones could only be found among the wealthy, or at least those who could stand to haul those things around. As information exchange has transformed how we live and work, Utah's GRAMA has remained largely the same.
Consider this: a recent records request asked for information regarding the District 57 boundary issue. In 1992, maps, letters, and memo exchanges would have been available to help the public better understand the situation. But in 2011, so-called "records" include text messages, e-mails, instant message transcripts, and voice mails, as well as the traditional content. Anything that can be duplicated is considered a record now. Many elected officials and members of the public feel that GRAMA is tipped so far out of balance that it is crippling the people's government both in cost and in effort to comply with records requests. In the District 57 issue, even a two-line handwritten note that was passed across the desk from an elected official to a staffer was handed over because of concerns that it would be considered a public record.
A core concern with GRAMA is the distinction between a conversation and a record. When GRAMA was created it wasn't fathomed that day-to-day conversations would be considered as records. But what you and we now consider a digital conversation is now considered public record: text messages, voice mails, instant message logs. If that's the case, why not just mic up every elected official and the tens of thousands of public employees across the state? Not only is it an impossible task, it's also a gross invasion of privacy.
And so we come to Rep. John Dougall and House Bill 477. The bill resets GRAMA with today's technology in mind and clarifies legislative intent where court decisions have swung the pendulum dangerously far in one direction.
As for the arguments from the media, lawmakers have attempted to negotiate modest changes for years. But even the smallest and most reasonable of changes are met with the wailing and gnashing of teeth. We're also weary of the sackcloth and ashes routine from media outlets and other special interest groups that for years have turned the state into their personal research arm funded by taxpayers.
Dozens and dozens of records requests come every year from the media and other groups that are so broad that they require hundreds of attorney and staff hours and encompass thousands of pieces of information - sometimes per request. Because of such fishing expeditions, the language in GRAMA is being changed to clarify what governments can do to recoup burdensome costs on behalf of the taxpayer.
Even with the proposed changes, Utah continues to be among the most transparent in the nation. We have a transparency site to track all state spending. We have full financial disclosure for all elected officials, as well as conflict of interest statements (click on your representative) and public meeting agendas all posted online. Here at the Legislature, we have all of our meetings streaming live, and we store that audio for anyone to listen to in the future. And we have GRAMA, alive and well.
Or to paraphrase Twain: "The reports of openness and transparency's death are greatly exaggerated."