One of the “under the surface” conversations taking place during the legislative session has been government records access.
You may recall a few weeks ago when we alerted you to Republican Senator Deidre Hendreson’s proposed changes to GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) by placing documents online (also, in case you missed it, Henderson went into further detail on the UPC Show). Though a formal bill has yet to be published by Sen. Henderson as of this writing, a bill file is in process under her name that has been titled “Open Data Standards Amendments” – presumably the bill dealing with such a change.
Representative Brian King (D – Salt Lake City) is taking a slightly different approach to GRAMA access and the fees that can be associated with any request.
“Right now, what you have in the statute is that government agencies are ‘strongly encouraged’ to wave the fees associated with a GRAMA request if it is clear that the request is in the public interest,” says Representative King. “However, this gives agencies the discretion to charge a fee even if records are in the public interest. “We ether need to remove the words ‘strongly encouraged.’ or the ability for agencies to have discretion, to ensure that individuals with legitimate requests for public documents do not need to pay to see them.”
It is for this reason that Representative King is proposing HB 122 – Fees for Government Records Requests. The bill changes two lines of code and would require a government entity to fulfill any record request without charge if it determines that the release of a record “primarily benefits the public rather than a person.”
King, who sat on the GRAMA working group in 2011, noted that fees and fee wavers were a topic of major discussion. “The fee serves as a way to filter out frivolous requests,” King admits, however he also acknowledges that this can have a chilling effect on legitimate records requests and can punish the requester rather than acknowledge the importance of the documents. “Take, for example, how the [Utah State Democratic] Party was treated with their GRAMA request [for documents related to redistricting]. There is a clear public interest in how representative districts are drawn, but people were blinded by what people may have thought were the political motivations of the party.”
If this bill were to pass, state agencies would be required to look at the importance of the documents themselves, and not inherently consider who is making the request.
Representative King tells us that he has received mostly favorable responses from government agencies he has spoken to about this. At the same time, he admits that those who make regular requests (such as newspapers) will not be stonewalled from documents because of a large bill associated with a GRAMA request. By clarifying and cleaning up code, the entire system can become more transparent.
In some ways, King says he is even encouraged by the possibility of a sizable fiscal note on the bill (yet to be seen) – something that normally makes passage of a bill difficult, if not impossible – “A large fiscal note validates the fact that government agencies are ignoring the provision that allows waving of fees.” The rationale being that a low fiscal note means that government agencies have already absorbed costs associated with GRAMA requests and not passing them on to those making the request.
This bill would provide some solutions to the difficulty in obtaining and submission of a request for government documents. It bears repeating that these documents are produced and managed already thanks to tax payer dollars, and the employees fulfilling legitimate requests are paid by the citizens of the state – in short, these documents are owned by the people and managed by government agencies. Passage of this bill would make government more transparent, and that benefits our democracy.
To contact Rep. King, Click Here
Impact on Average Utahn:
High Impact 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 No Impact
Necessary 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Unnecessary
Great Bill 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 . -1 . -2 . -3 . -4 . -5 Poor Bill