As the Utah Legislature begins this week, lawmakers are aware the public is watching and it will be warned about bills and new laws that could infringe upon the public's right to know about their 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. Luckily, the now-infamous HB 477 was brought down by a flood of public discourse.
HB 477 was introduced at literally the last minute of the 2011 legislative session, and it caught almost everyone unaware. So Utah's model open-records law nearly became a casualty two years ago. The Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) almost became history and it would have closed off much of the public's 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.
But the fight to preserve the rights of Utahns to know what is going on never ends. While no large bill to restrict information is on the horizon in this year's legislature, each year bills are introduced that could nick away at the law piece by piece. It is something that needs to be monitored, not only by the press but by the public as well.
To that end, the Utah Media Coalition announced on Friday that it will continue with its GRAMA WATCH that was used during last year's session to evaluate legislation in the area of public information. It is a process that is used 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.
Again GRAMA WATCH notes will use a three-tiered scale to rate legislation. Bills receiving a "bright light" would enhance public access to government and are worthy of passage. Bills receiving a "pale light" are essentially neutral, neither increasing nor decreasing access to government information. Bills getting a "lights out" designation have been found to work against open government. GRAMA WATCH notes will be published in Utah newspapers and on the web site www.UtahsRight.com.
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 14.