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Home / Articles / News / Cover Story /  Protect Yourself With GRAMA Page 3
Cover Story

Protect Yourself With GRAMA Page 3

Let public records come to your rescue

By Eric S. Peterson
Posted // August 22,2012 -

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BEFORE YOU GO TO THE DOCTOR
Since you’ve already checked out DOPL.Utah.gov, you might as well use the Agency & Disciplinary Actions search to check up on your doctor, dentist or any other number of licensed professionals to review any history of getting handsy with the patients or partying pre-surgery.

Through this search, you can check past actions the state has taken against the license of the individual. To check out all disciplined doctors in the state since 2000 and see their complete histories at a glance, visit City Weekly’s Doctor Discipline Database at CityWeekly.net/Doctors.

GRAMA GONE DIGITAL
Utah’s GRAMA law may be getting on in years, but new technological advancements continue to reinvigorate the law. Perhaps more importantly, government is learning that the solution to avoiding costly requests isn’t to try to discourage the public from accessing government records but to put more and more records online.

As the reader can tell from this guide, there are already warehouses worth of paper documents out in the e-world waiting to be accessed and downloaded. And as more average Utahns access those and use GRAMA for everything else, it will push the government to put more of its records—from the tedious to the titillating—online. Which means that requesting more openness, transparency, information and enlightenment from your government depends upon you, dear reader. Only you can prevent another HB477. So, go on, get those docs, and get GRAMA!

To access the GRAMA law in its entirety, go to http://citywk.ly/MJXtp7.



GRAMA Knows Best:
How to get public records to work for you

After the public organized against the Legislature’s attempt to stifle GRAMA in 2011, lawmakers saw the error of their ways and decided to repeal the bill. Since then, the Legislature has studied and passed in 2012 Senate Bill 177, a law modification that is a far cry from 2011’s House Bill 477. The bill made minor fixes, found funding for records officers in local government to receive extra training on GRAMA, and created a GRAMA ombudsman to help field calls from average citizens about navigating GRAMA.

For those stumped and in need of a guiding hand, ombudsman Rosemary Cundiff of the Utah State Archives can help (see "GRAMA Guru").

Before requesting records, it’s a good idea to ask an agency if there is a specific form individuals should use. Otherwise, you can get a good, all-purpose form from the Attorney General’s website AttorneyGeneral.Utah.gov/GRAMA.html

For GRAMA beginners, a taste of public records worth requesting:
Police Incident Reports: These are basic descriptions of incidents, arrests or simple calls for service.

E-mails:The communications of public officials are totally fair game for requesting. This doesn’t mean you’ll get them. Government officials have the right to withhold or redact records that contain private information or may pertain to an active investigation, among other restrictions.

Budgets, Salaries, Bonuses: If taxpayer money is involved, you should be able to GRAMA it. You may hit a roadblock trying to find out information before a particular budget is proposed, but otherwise, you paid for it, so you should get to see the receipt—be that the cost of a road, a city councilman’s salary or the contract for garbage pickup in your neighborhood.

GRAMA Tips and Etiquette:
With the power of being able to access public records comes responsibility. You should be careful to not make your GRAMA too burdensome for the government agency fulfilling the request. Also consider that being polite to a public-records officer is often the best way to get the information you’re after.

Prime the Pump: Despite how you may feel about guv’ment—whether a tax collector or a police department—remember that the records officer is a person, with feelings. Legally, you could just fax or e-mail a GRAMA request over, passively avoiding talking to the records person, but that would be a mistake. By talking to the right person, you might find that they can send you the records without a formal request, or they may tell you the best way to phrase the request so that you get what you’re looking for without paying big bucks for copies and research fees.

Don’t GRAMA Angry: Sometimes in matters of local government, a citizen can let anger get the better of them. In 2002, one citizen began a records battle with the town of Alta that resulted in seven years of fighting and the production of more than 250,000 documents. It was also the kind of “fishing expedition” that motivated legislators to try to rein in GRAMA. When you request records, be specific about what documents you want. Don’t request every e-mail or document from every person at an agency ever since it was formed and expect the person processing your request to do it happily. You should expect, however, that if the request is too large, you’ll be expected to pay research costs that could hit your wallet pretty hard.

Keep Costs Down: Speaking of GRAMA costs, you should also remember that on a GRAMA request, you can request that an agency notify you when a request exceeds a certain amount. If you really want to save money on copying costs, the law also says that all records should be available for inspection for free. That way you might be able to inspect boxes of records and then get a 25 cent copy of just the two pages you want, instead of the thousands they’re hidden among. But you will still pay for research costs if records have to be compiled and sorted into one spot.

Fight the Denial: If you feel that an agency has denied records that should rightfully be yours, you can fight the power. The process varies depending on the agency, but for the majority of decisions, you will appeal first to the head of the agency that first denied your request. Then, if necessary, you can appeal it again to the State Records Committee. Here, you are encouraged to plead your case in simple terms before a citizen-staffed board. The board will then recommend whether the agency should disclose the records to you.

Keep in mind the SRC is made up of easy-going folks who wish to accommodate average citizens—but their decision isn’t binding. If they recommend an agency turn over the goods, it’s just that—a recommendation. The record-holders can still fight that decision—meaning that the battle then goes to court.

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