Governor Herbert has called a special session Friday that may repeal HB477, while a group has been formed to study how to re-vamp and replace the state’s open-government records law.
In a statement Herbert released he signaled the need for the working group to replace the bill as it stands now instead of simply delaying the bill’s implementation until July 1, as the Legislature had agreed to in the last week of the session. “It is now clear to me that HB477, both in process and substance, has resulted in a loss of public confidence,” Herbert said in a released statement.
The group now formed will start studying how to modernize Utah’s twenty-year old open-government law to balance government transparency with legislators and constituents privacy.
The 25 member working group was chosen by Legislative leadership as well as the Governor’s office. The group’s members represent a cross-section of legislators, new media experts, traditional media, attorneys from the Governor and Attorney General’s Office, a representative of the Utah League of Cities and Towns and various members of the public. The group will be tasked with figuring out how to update the law that as early as a week ago was set to into effect July 1, barring revisions to be made in a special session to be called in the summer. Now that bill could be completely repealed Friday while the new working group prepares recommendations for a legislative interim committee to study the issue fresh for the 2012 session.
“Muscles may have been strained with all the strenuous back peddling in the last couple of weeks,” jokes Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who serves as one of the two democrat legislators in the group. King, who joined the majority of his fellow house democrats in originally voting against HB477 feels he was picked because of his understanding of the delicate nature of attorney/client privilege.
“I’ve got my regular government e-mail and I’ve got my law firm e-mail and I can’t always dictate who writes me on what address,” King says, adding that House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City felt he could speak to that balancing act. “If someone wants to [request records from] my law firm address I have to be sensitive to attorney client privilege as well as the need to disclose information that relates to government work.”
King was optimistic about the pick of Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie to serve as the working group chair, since Beattie also once served as President of the Utah State Senate from 1994-2000 when he left the Legislature. King also was excited to see Jon Pearce, general counsel for Governor Gary Herbert on the working group. “He’s a very reasonable, very pragmatic guy,” King says. Pearce previously practiced securities and anti-trust law but also represented the Salt Lake Tribune in a successful legal battle winning the release of records that showed that the owners of the Crandall Canyon mine knew of safety problems with the mine before it collapsed in 2007 and killed six Utah miners in Emery County.
Besides Beattie, other public representatives include former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilkins, and Tea Party Leader David Kirkham among others. Some have already criticized the Legislature for drawing members from the public who do no represent the non-profit advocacy groups who not only use the current Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) regularly but who were also vocal in the call for the repeal of HB477.
“Pretty much everyone involved in this fight knows the press are critical. But the other part of it is that lots of nonprofits and advocacy groups are out there that use GRAMA regularly,” says Matt Pacenza, policy director for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, (HEAL Utah), an anti-nuclear, environmental advocacy and awareness group.
Pacenza was also one of the major organizers of the rally at the state capitol the last day of the Legislature that helped fill the capitol with hundreds of protesters who shouted for repeal of the bill. “Obviously there’s some good names on the [working group] list, some super-bright folks. But there’s also glaring omissions,” Pacenza says. “The Legislature needs to understand this is not just about the press.”
While voices of advocacy groups may not be a part of the working group, another kind of rallier will be taking decision-makers to task. Jesse Stay, a social-media author and entrepreneur is one group member who will be representing the “new media.” Stay created the Repeal HB477 Facebook page and challenged the bill for not only being rushed without proper public input, but for ignoring technological solutions that could remedy many of the lawmakers’ concerns.
“The first question I asked when they asked if I wanted to be a part of this is: Is the event going to be streamed live?” Stay says. The fact that the event will be live-streamed was a plus for Stay who prides himself on transparency. Besides having written three books on Face Book, Stay believes the expertise he hopes to bring to the process will be in educating lawmakers about tech solutions to the issue.
“I’m hoping to help the government come up with technology to share everything online and then be able to protect the privacy of citizens through automated processes—a process that’s not costing the state all the money they claim they’re being charged by handling these GRAMAs,” Stay says. It’s actually technology Stay develops professionally that helps people filter public and private information currently for social media platforms like Facebook.
While Stay admits he has been openly critical of the bill and the way it was originally passed he hopes to enter into the process as openly as possible. “I intend to be live-tweeting the through the entire meeting, posting on Facebook and asking for input,” he says.
The working group’s first meeting will be held Wednesday, March 23, at 9 a.m. at the Utah State Capitol. 350 N. State. Senate Building Room 210 The meeting is also expected to be streamed live and links will also be added to this post as that information is made available.