GRAMA – Utah’s Government Records Access Management Act – has become almost synonymous with controversy in Utah since 2011, when Representative John Dougall (R), now the State Auditor, ran the infamous HB 477 which stripped the public and the media of their right to examine text messages and other forms of electronic communication between legislators.
The ill-fated bill passed through the Utah Legislature near the end of the 2011 session within a matter of days. But the ensuing public and media uproar was so strong, a special session was called to repeal the bill.
Two years later, freshman State Senator Deidre Henderson (Republican, Spanish Fork) is also attempting to alter GRAMA, but this time it’s for the better.
The process of requesting and obtaining public records from the state is, without question, a cumbersome and outdated system. A written request for records must be submitted, after which a response on whether or not the records can be released is received back days later (typically). Receipt of the records themselves can then take days, weeks or even months. Before the records are released, the state may require a fee be paid to cover the expense of staff time to locate the records and make them available. All in all, the technology and process is very 1960’s.
Senator Henderson, in conjunction with a bipartisan group of individuals and organizations, including Democrat Jason Williams who is a member of the state’s GRAMA Working Group, are putting together legislation that could potentially revolutionize the way government records are handled in Utah.
In a blog post on the Senate’s website, Senator Henderson writes: “Anyone can file a GRAMA request. But what if the information being sought was easily accessible on a single, centralized, searchable resource hub? It would become obsolete, or at least less necessary, to file a GRAMA request at the appropriate government agency and pay a fee for staff to research and produce government documents that already belong to the public.”
The upcoming bill, titled Utah Transparency Act Amendments (language not yet public), would completely overhaul the GRAMA process, creating a searchable hub online where any member of the public can search for and find government records without the hassle of submitting a request and waiting for staff to locate the documents for you. All public state records would be required to be electronically uploaded into the database and made available to the public.
“Oftentimes, half of what these state agencies spend their time locating [after a GRAMA request is submitted] doesn’t even need to come from a GRAMA request, people just don’t know where to locate the information,” says Williams. “We’ve got this great open records law in Utah, but we’re just not taking advantage of it or utilizing it in the way it could be used.”
According to those working on the project, the bipartisan group has begun seeing tremendous support from both sides of the aisle. Republicans like the idea that the state would be spending much less money on staff time to comply with the GRAMA requests, and Democrats as well as open-government advocacy groups applaud the idea of making state records more transparent and readily available to the public.
Although the language of the bill is not yet publicly available, UPC has been told it is not expected that the legislation will alter what is or is not publicly available. Any changes along those lines would need to come from further legislation down the road.
Last year the Utah Democratic and Republican Parties grabbed quite a few headlines after they submitted sizeable GRAMA requests to the state, but were charged enormous fees to cover the time it took for legislative staff to locate, organize, print and make the records available. Under Senator Henderson’s new legislation, that entire process would have been avoided because the records would have been available online.
It has long been argued in Utah about whether fees should be charged at all for providing public government records. The media, special interest groups, and citizens who have submitted requests have balked at having to pay fees for records that are public. But the legislature has strongly maintained that except under certain circumstances, it is only fair that the time it takes staff to locate documents and make them available should be reimbursed.
If the Senator’s Utah Transparency Act Amendments bill were to pass, the entire cumbersome process would be eliminated.
“The work of state and local government in the State of Utah belongs to the citizens of the State of Utah,” writes Senator Henderson. “In addition, I believe good transparency policies can lead to effective accountability and better government.”