As the Utah Legislature begins this week, lawmakers need to be aware that something new is in the air. Something grassroots. And it is left over from the fight last spring when the lawmakers made an attempt to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it came to open government.
Utah has one of the best laws in the country concerning the openness of government. But during the 2011 Legislature a bill that was proposed almost did away with that law, a bill which David Cullier of the Society of Professional Journalists said would have cast less light on Utah's governmental actions than the laws Utah will be more backward than most other countries, "including Mexico and former Soviet republics Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan."
For that law, even though the infamous HB 477 was brought down by a flood of public discourse, he gave Utah the SPJ's annual national "Black Hole Award" for exceptional efforts to undermine Utah's freedom of information.
Cullier, who visited Price in November to do a workshop on open government for newspapers from all around eastern and central Utah said that giving the award to Utah was "a slam dunk" because even though a half dozen other states were being considered for the award, the Utah legislation was by far the worst.
The bill was introduced at literally the last minute of the legislature, and it caught everyone unaware, except for those legislators that introduced it. So Utah's model open-records law nearly became a casualty last year. The Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) almost became history and it would have closed off public access to a host of government records.
Once it was learned how bad the bill was for open government the news media quickly reported on the substance and significance of the bill, and in concert with the Utah Media Coalition, urged the public to protect their interests and have their voices heard. In their spirited response the public clearly demonstrated support for government in sunlight. The outcry drove chastened lawmakers to repeal the law.
That activity by the Media Coalition, the Utah Press Association (which a member of the coalition), Utahns For Open Government and others showed that the best defense of open government is a strong watchdog media to monitor legislation and government activity throughout the state.
To that end, the Utah Media Coalition announced on Saturday that it has formed a GRAMA WATCH process to rank selective initiatives and government action for openness and accessibility and to inform the public and government representatives and officials about these rankings.
The Coalition endeavors to be useful to citizens and state officials by keeping both informed about how actions would or could affect the people's right to know how their government is conducting their business. In addition the coalition encourages the public to stay in touch with their representatives at all levels of government to voice opinions and concerns.
The WATCH will not rank every proposed bill or action, only those that in some way affect openness and access. In an annual report to the people, GRAMA WATCH will honor the most enlightened action with a Bright Shining Light Award and name a recipient for a Dim Bulb Award for the most obstructive action.
A team of specialists will keep and eye on bills that come to both the Senate and the House, and bills that warrant ratings will have notices sent to all media outlets concerning their content
The Sun Advocate will feature those ratings as they are released during the session to let the citizenry know about what is going on concerning their government.
The general session of the legislature started on Monday and will run through March 8.