Staff editorial: GRAMA fight isn't over, never will be
Next year, or the year after that, or the year after that, a bill labeled HB 391 or SB 468 may pop up at the Utah State Legislature and once again the fight for public access to government information will be on.
Now I just pulled those bill numbers out of my head. They may actually be the numbers of bills in the coming years that will make basket weaving the state hobby or a measure to control how much sugar you put in your morning coffee (if they will let you drink coffee at all). What I am illustrating here is the fact that bills like HB 477 (remember, the one attacking the Government Record Access Management Act) will appear once again, sometime.
Death by 1,000 scratches
Now these bills probably will not look like HB 477. Those who want to change how government records are doled out to the public probably learned a pretty tough lesson from what they went through this past session (let's face it, they got mashed by public opinion). But what I believe they will now try and do is kill GRAMA by inflicting dozens of small wounds upon her body until she is meaningless. I call it death by a thousand scratches.
Right now the task force that was formed because of that legislative debacle to discuss problems with GRAMA meets every Wednesday. Hopefully they are working toward decisions that will fix problems, yet keep GRAMA basically intact.
However, I think the forces that really wanted to see HB 477 become law are still out there, although right now they are sounding very reasonable. If you know anything about history, Neville Chamberlain gave Adolph Hitler northwest Czechoslovakia to appease him in 1937, so he wouldn't take more. Later he forced the rest of the country to come into his Third Reich, and the we all know what happened after that.
The problem with any compromise is that the evil is in the details. Yes, I said evil, not devil. That's because sometimes the most well meaning people, stand up for evil specifics without really knowing they are doing it.
The imaginary bills I mentioned at the front of this piece would not take on GRAMA directly, but would use a series of indirect attacks to weaken the law. Some of it has already happened in the past
Changing law's 'intent'
For instance, I worry about legislation making "departmental exemptions" where one part of state or local government doesn't need to follow one or two specific rules because of some seemingly good reason. That kind of legislation could grow from a trickle into a waterfall and soon no one would have to follow the rules.
Here are some principles I think supporters of GRAMA cannot weaken on.
One of the things that HB 477 attempted to do was to change the entire meaning of the law and what it was for. This is called "intent language" and the bill really tried to do away with that.
No legislative privilege
Second, we should not allow representatives of any kind to have the same kinds of protection between them and their constituents that lawyers and clients or doctors and patients have. In other words there should be no "legislative privilege." Some legislators have complained about the possibility of personal information that their constituents reveal to them being released to the media. To me, letters, emails and texts on state equipment should be open to the public. If someone wants to say something to a legislator or representative and fear this kind of problem, then make an appointment with that individual and say it in person. Other than notes, no records are made of such conversations (unless the person agrees to having it recorded).
Must be fair to all
Third, we need to find a way to make sure the costs of doing research pertaining to GRAMA is fair to everyone, including the taxpayer. People who want records should have to pay the costs to research them, but not an inflated price. No office should use their staff lawyer to make copies and then charge $200 an hour for that person's time to the person requesting the information. On the other hand, a developer or law firm should not ask for records that go back five years that consists of hundreds or thousands of pages and get off with just a minute price tag.
Finally, we need a better appeals system when an agency says no to a GRAMA request. Right now there is a state appeals board, but with the exception of a few larger cities, no local entities really have a lower appeals process. Maybe we need something statewide that works kind of like the court system in that there is a ladder that someone can climb when appealing a decision, with the final voice being the state board.
GRAMA protects us
GRAMA protects you and me from people who are doing things they shouldn't within our government. It is untrue that GRAMA is the media's free research organization. Since HB 477 was introduced a lot of sunshine has been placed on who has really been using the law and the media was well down the list of big consumers of GRAMA. Most of the use has been by the citizens themselves when they want to know something about their government.
I think the committee that has been set up is bargaining in pretty good faith, and based on what I heard at a meeting I was in last week they are now making some good progress on ironing out problems. Let's hope that continues and they come up with some legislation that will correct problems and inequities that exist.
But we all must stay vigilant. Even if the committee is successful and legislation they recommend or principles they have developed are adopted, there will still be those out there that will strike to try and weaken the law, not with one big swing, but by little slaps that could lead to witholding information the public must have.
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