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A Win for Open Government in Utah

by Guest Blogger

Jason Williams is back as our special guest blogger to provide an update on Utah's controversial bill -- HB477 and how a public outcry to repeal it, improved open government in the "beehive state". His blog The SideTrack, has daily updates of his work.

This time last year, I reported here on the Utah Legislatures attack on open government, and the public firestorm it ignited. One year later, I have good news.

2011's HB477, which would have removed lawmakers' emails and text messages from the public record, and shifted the intent of Utah's open records law (GRAMA) away from public interest, was simply the first step in a long and yet encouraging process. Beginning with protestors "crashing the gates" at the state capitol after lawmakers rammed their bill through, and ending with this year's SB177 in response, the entire experience has been a lesson on the importance of public engagement with state lawmakers in the interest of transparency.

After the public outcry over the 2011 bill and the process behind it, Utah lawmakers first decided to delay implementation. When Utah Governor Gary Herbert ignored demand for a veto and signed the law with a "promise to fix it," citizen watchdog organizations began a signature gathering process to get a citizen veto on the November ballot. The amount of signatures gathered in literally just a few days urged lawmakers to finally repeal HB477, and in response commission a "Working Group" with members of the public, FOI activists, lawmakers, open source software experts, and media law professionals. I was invited to be a part of the working group. You can see the results of our 7 weeks of work, including our final recommendations to the Governor and legislative leaders here. It was an educational experience, even for lawmakers. We learned that Utah has no central training materials for cities, and that training was being done primarily by the League of Cities and Towns, who were advising cities with cost in mind more than public interest. We learned that the Utah Records Committee had untapped resources and experience to offer, and that some lawmakers weren't aware the Records Committee even existed. We also learned that legislative legal council had been giving lawmakers some very bad advice, which was much of the impetus behind the offending HB477. Lawmakers told me they were learning much they didn't know about the opportunities (and challenges) of technology they hadn't explored.

In July we made our final recommendations and were joined by the Sunlight Foundation in Salt Lake City at the National Governors Association conference, bringing a renewed spotlight to the Utah open records fight and calling on all Governors in attendance to stand up for transparency. But interest in GRAMA and the recommendations of the working group was soon overshadowed by the redistricting process (which brought a few transparency concerns of it's own to the debate). Many working group members were justifiably cynical about how seriously the legislature would take our recommendations.

They surprised us. Just a few weeks ago, State Senator Curt Bramble -- a member of the working group himself, and a lawmaker I had many conversations with during our meetings about changing technology and the "philosophy" of transparency -- announced SB177 via video:

Last week I had the opportunity to interview Sen. Bramble personally (listen here) and he was very proud of his bill, and the efforts of the working group. SB177, which includes nearly all of our recommendations as a working group, clarifies non-controversial portions of the GRAMA law lawmakers voiced concerns about, creates an independent ombudsman "mediator" for contested records requests, centralizes GRAMA training for cities and towns, and upholds the original intent of the law as it applies to public interest trumping issues of cost or time. There will also be an ongoing communication and "transparency grading" of bills with Utah's largest media organizations via the media led GRAMA Watch.

SB177 sailed out of Senate committee unanimously, and is expected to pass the Senate. In the Utah House, where the original HB477 was born, things aren't as clear. But lawmakers have made it known there is a great desire in leadership to "restore the public trust, and get this done. We'll be watching, of course.

For now, it looks like public engagement, watchful citizen organizations, help from national watchdogs like the Sunlight Foundation, and Utah lawmakers willing to listen -- and learn! -- have prevailed in Utah.