Each year the legislature considers new laws and regulations for the state of Utah. Each year some of the changes they pass are good for the general public, while others are not so good. So why would they pass bills that would hurt citizens instead of help them?
The story lies in the muck of making laws in our country. The fact is squeaky wheels get the grease, and often the noisiest wheels are the ones that either intentionally are trying to get something done in their own self interest, or believe that the change they ask the legislature to make is something that is needed from their own inside perspective. And often unintended consequences result.
To the average citizen, many of the changes are made during the session are minor, something they do not need to be concerned about. They usually only care about the overall big issues such as education, budget and social programs. Yet lost in the minutia of detail are the smaller changes made that erode the public's ability to know about their government.
Just such a rule change is on the boards for this year's upcoming session. The Utah Judicial Council wants to change only a few lines of their policy in regards the Open Meetings Act to allow them to close their meetings if they are considering information that has to do with "consideration of a non-public record."
The Utah Judicial Council is an entity most Utahns know little about. It is the policy making body for the judiciary in the state. It has the constitutional authority to adopt uniform rules of the administration of all courts in the state. The council also sets the standards for judicial performance, court facilities, support services and judicial and non-judicial staffs. The council has 14 members and the Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court chairs the council. Largely those on the board are judges from various kinds of courts, along with a representative from the Utah State Bar Association. The council basically sets rules for the judiciary in the state through a Board of Judges for each level of the courts. Each month the council has meetings which are open to the public.
However there are exceptions when the council can close their meetings, just as there are with any public board or council. Those reasons are few because of the Open Meetings Act. It vastly restricts public boards, councils or commissions of any kind from closing meetings just because a subject might be touchy or have political repercussions. But now the Utah Judicial Council is trying to get their rules for closing meetings beyond the intent of the Open Meetings Act. The two additions they want to add to their rules are closing meetings for discussing "professional" competence and for discussing matters of in "consideration of a non-public record."
Not a big deal, right. Wrong.
First, and in general, any erosion of a citizen's right to know what is going on in government at any level or in any department should always bring concern to those citizens. Changes at the time may seem miniscule, but over time, added to other subtle changes, can become substantiative.
Second, these changes, particularly "the consideration of a non-public record" is a major variation that could have long lasting repercussions. The effect would be to create more than 100 new exceptions to the Open Meetings Act, which is the number of record categories that are private, protected, controlled or otherwise non-public under GRAMA (Government Records Access Management Act) or other statute. The potential for abuse is too great. There has been no real demonstration that the rules need to be changed just for the Judiciary Council.
How can you as a citizen stop another plug in government information that someday may be important to you? You can go to www.utcourts.gov/cgi-bin/mt3/mt-comments.cgi?entry_id=1442 to post a comment about the move.
The public comment period ends Oct. 19, 2010.