More than 20 members of the working group to re-write Utah’s open-government records law convened today and in two hours had little time for more than introductions and arguing.
In the Senate Building a large U shaped table seated 23 members of the newly formed HB477 working group. The seating of the group members mirrored roughly the dividing lines of stakeholders on the issue with traditional media members at the far left staring across at most of the group's lawmakers on the other side of the meeting room. But the group was dotted with more than just lawmakers and media representatives. There were also legal counsel from the Governor’s office and the Attorney General’s office and public members like social media expert Jesse Stay and state Tea Party Leader David Kirkham were also in the group.
Chairing the group and acting as referee to the informal body was Salt Lake Chamber President, and former Utah Senate President, Lane Beattie.
“I’ve never seen a time when the Legislature and the Governor have reached out as they have and put together such a group of people and asked for their input,” Beattie said. “And one even chaired by a non-legislative person, I hope that speaks volumes.”
With that however Beattie reminded the group they were informal and their job was to recommend legislation, not craft it. “To come up with the right kind of recommendation this process has to be very open,” Beattie said.
Transparency in the meeting was a clear priority for the group which plans to not only set up a website but also create a Facebook page and Twitter account with the help of group member Jesse Stay, a social media author and entrepreneur. The group will also seek to include in discussions stakeholder who feel they might not be represented in the group’s body.
What was also transparent in the meeting were the divisions between lawmakers and media members in the group.
Attempts to agree on an agenda of issues to discuss were sidetracked by back-and-forth exchanges on government privacy versus transparency issues. Even group member introductions were fodder for delineating camps—after Geoff Liesik of the Uintah Basin Standard introduced himself and spoke of his frequent use of GRAMA, or the Government Records Access and Management Act to seek government documents, group member and conservative blogger Rep. Holly Richardson, R-Pleasant Grove tweeted: “Editor from Uintah says he uses GRAMA on a daily basis. As in every day.”
While the group heard some background history on the original passage of GRAMA much of the time spent was in laying the groundwork of discussions to come. Legislative staff developed 36 policy questions based on House Bill 477 (see below) and then sought to try and demarcate general topic areas the questions could be clumped under. But the process of sorting was sidetracked in debate. One discussion that dominated the meeting was personal privacy—of government officials.
During the legislative session when HB477 was passed, legislators argued primarily for the privacy of constituents who might not realize discussions with legislators could be classified a public record. In today’s meeting, however, group members focused more on the privacy of their communications with friends and family. Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, referred to a request he was subjected to that he says involved a review of all his e-mails by legislative staff. A process he says was invasive, even if the information ultimately did not become part of a news story, simply because legislative staff still had to review his e-mails.
“In my opinion private information was searched. It was never released but the process of going through it violated my Fourth Amendment rights, very clearly in my mind,” Adams said in reference to the constitutional right against unlawful search and seizure.
A point echoed by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George.
“We want to know there is some safe harbor,” Urquhart said. “I’m up here away from home and I’m going to send a lot of text messages to my wife and kids, and I just really don’t want anyone going through that.”
The call for such privacy for public officials was not one all group members sympathized with. “This is the work you have chosen,” said Jason Williams, blogger and radio host of KVNU’s For the People. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City also challenged the notion of government communications being so private no one can review them, quoting the famous quote from President Ronald Reagan “Trust but verify.”
“Are we going to trust you completely when you say what is and what is not personal on your government e-mail?” King asked.
It was one question of many the group will tackle in the weeks to come now that the formalities are over and the debate truly kicks off. The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, March 30, 9 a.m., Utah State Capitol, 350 North State, Senate Building Room 210. Until the website is set up, you can visit the Utah Senate Site for more information on audio and video of the meeting.GRAMAPolicyQuestions