In my many years of observing Utah politics, I have never seen so many people so angry as when the Legislature tried to kill GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act). The anger was not about corruption, it was that people we elected were attacking the most basic right in our republic — the people’s right to know. Liberty and freedom are in danger when officials hide their deliberations from those who elected them.
Last session the Legislature passed HB477, changing the respected Utah records law from one of the nation’s most transparent systems to one of the most secret. Those interested in details can read it online at www.le.state.ut.us/~2011/htmdoc/hbillhtm/HB0477.htm. Or Google Utah HB477 and have 21,000 documents at your service in 9 seconds.
Almost every media outlet in Utah opposed the bill. The state’s largest paper used one of its rare front page editorials to call for the bill’s repeal. Editor Nancy Conway wrote: “HB477 was such an egregious assault on open records and public access that a strong stand against it was an easy call ... all agreed that if we were ever to use the front page to express our view, this was it. Newspapers are the public’s watchdogs. It is our responsibility not only to inform the public but also to cry foul when government does something not in the public’s best interest.” (Salt Lake Tribune, 30 Apr 2011).
But knowing what was best for us, legislators passed the bill over citizen objection. It was sponsored by our state senator and all three state representatives in Cache Valley. Gov. Herbert signed it into law. When the governor called the Legislature into special session and asked them to repeal the law, sponsors Sen. Lyle Hillard, Rep. David Butterfield and Rep. Jack Draxler voted for repeal. Rep. Curt Webb voted against repeal.
A working group was established to study GRAMA. They are now debating which electronic messages — emails, texts, tweets, etc. — should be open to public access. That’s simple. In a free country, elected officials represent us, we the people, not favored ones. All their official actions should be open to the public and reported by the media.
Recently Fox 13 news reported Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, worked for HeatWurkx Construction prior to it getting a state contract. The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) gave HeatWurkx the job by advertising exact specifications requiring technology HeatWurkx owns. After the media report, UDOT agreed to rewrite specifications so others can bid on future contracts. Was it helpful for the people to know this?
In discussing the pothole fiasco, news media revisited UDOT paying a company $13 million not to sue after losing its bid. The loser claimed UDOT used a questionable rating system to award the $1.1 billion Interstate 15 contract to its competitor, a firm that gave Gov. Herbert $87,500 for his re-election campaign. Was it unfair for the media to drag out the payoff again?
Utah government, even with GRAMA, is mostly conducted in secret. Republicans hold a super-majority in both houses of the Legislature. Legislation is debated, or maybe not, in closed sessions away from the press and voters. Some “representatives” have the audacity to claim they can speak more honestly in closed meetings.
When the Legislature tried to kill GRAMA, Utahns from the far left, the ultra right and most in between were irate. People crossed party lines and banded together to overturn actions by the Legislature and governor.
Just days after the bill passed someone I had never met called and introduced himself as a Republican. He wanted me to carry a petition for a referendum to save GRAMA. Groups of Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats were getting together, trying to get petitions signed and certified under Utah’s limited referendum rules. Party affiliation did not matter. Regaining control of our government did. Groups met all over the state. A special session was called and HB477 repealed.
Some legislators learn slowly. They want another special session to pass a new bill. There is a high probability that we will have another round of we the people vs. the Utah Legislature.
The Legislature’s attempt to deny public access generated a genuine nonpartisan uprising among the people. And it demonstrated again that most of the Legislature act on their own and do not represent the people.
Three improvements need to come from the Legislature’s attempt to neuter GRAMA. First, GRAMA should not be changed to protect legislators and their favored few. It should be strengthened to specifically make any written communication about a public issue between a public servant and a citizen, electronic or otherwise, part of the public record.
Second, any meeting or caucus where three-fifths of those eligible to vote on issues being discussed are present should be advertised and open to the public. This should include both partisan and nonpartisan groups.
Third, laws and regulations governing citizen initiatives and referenda should be rewritten to allow easier and more reasonable ways to force a public vote on any issue. The right to petition should be streamlined in Utah.
Elected officials’ actions with HB477 will not be forgotten quickly. There are lists of people who voted for it on bulletin boards and refrigerators. If people who supported the bill want to continue in office, they should apologize or justify their actions in ways people can understand. Incumbents usually consider themselves safe in Utah elections. But HB477 changed that. Utahns do not like their hired hands messing with their freedom.
Thad Box is a Logan resident. He is among a number of Cache Valley freelance writers whose columns appear in The Herald Journal as part of an effort to expose readers to a variety of community voices. He is not an employee of the newspaper. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.