Public access a key concern
by Bill Boyle
Mar 23, 2011 | 9018 views | 0 0 comments | 1511 1511 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Several years ago, I visited the Utah State Capital to testify at a hearing before elected officials.

During the hearing, testimony was interrupted in midsentence as Senators and Representatives unexpectedly burst into laughter.

Kevin Ashby, then the publisher of the Sun Advocate in Price, had been testifying when the interruption occurred. The Senator who was chairing the hearing quickly apologized to the confused audience and the meeting resumed.

We later discovered that Senator Mike Dmitrich had triggered the laughter when he sent an email from his laptop computer to the other elected officials at the table.

Dmitrich, a storied legislator who represented the Price area for decades, had emailed that the elected officials should listen carefully since Ashby (an LDS Church leader in Price) was his bishop. (Dmitrich is not LDS.)

It was a classic Dmitrich moment. While it was completely harmless and had no impact on the hearing, the experience helped me understand that technology had changed the way government works.

With email, and even more in the age of texting, elected officials can have a thorough discussion on a bill outside of the prying eyes of the public.

Frankly, there is nothing wrong with deliberations between elected officials. But what about conversations between elected officials and lobbyists and special interest groups?

In the final days of the recent Utah State legislative session, the legislature rammed through House Bill 477 with little or no input from the public. In an ironic and appalling example of closed government, the bill completely eviscerates the state Government Records and Access Management Act (GRAMA).

A wide range of electronic communication would be exempted from public access with the bill, including emails and text messages. While there may be reasons to protect the day-to-day communication of elected officials, shouldn’t the process to determine the protection be open and public?

Apparently, Legislators anticipated that an inevitable public outcry would quickly die away. However, they were mistaken.

There was no public awareness that the bill was being considered, and no chance to have a public process to consider it’s implications. As a result, should it be a surprise that the bill is a public access disaster?

A professor at the University of Arizona stated, “Utah’s law, which was in the top dozen states for transparency, will now be the most secretive in the nation. Not only that, I compared the law to other nations’ laws and found that Utah will be more backward than most other countries, including Mexico and former Soviet republics Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. El Salvador just passed a better law last week.

“The silver lining? Utah is still more transparent than Kazakhstan.”

In the past week, the Society of Professional Journalists presented Utah with the “Black Hole award” for “exceptional efforts to undermine freedom of information”.

A referendum petition was introduced in a press conference, with the support of groups who are generally on the opposite sides of the political spectrum.

When Utah Tea Party Founder David Kirkham and previous Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson agree on an issue, it is time to take notice.

A recent Dan Jones poll found that 80 percent of Utahns support the referendum effort.

Two weeks of embarrassing outcry may have been enough, as the governor and the Republican caucus called for the repeal of the law as the press deadline approached.
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