On January 1st, citizens will be able to access the emails and government records of lawmakers thanks to a new state website. The yet-to-be-named website can trace its origins to the redistricting process in 2012, and will allow lawmakers to remove emails from in-boxes or archives and make them available to the public.
During the redistricting process, numerous record requests were made by citizens and non-governmental agencies for access to emails between lawmakers, and between lawmakers and the public, presumably with the intent to discover if lawmakers were working in the public’s best interest or engaging in gerrymandering.
Under the old system, individuals would have to submit what is known as a Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) request. This request would force lawmakers to put a freeze on the deletion of any document that could be related to the request. The process can be slow (often weeks or months), require many man-hours, can be used as a stall tactic by those who wish to avoid scrutiny, and may require a high-level of specificity in order to find documents relevant to the request. But GRAMA requests don’t just slow down the public—government officials who have a GRAMA request placed on them must show proper due diligence when complying the request. Important information could be hidden within large documents that are not easily searchable, or are repeated in several documents, and legislative staff have to find and print the exact same information multiple times, often charging the requester of information for time and material on the process.
No better example exists than the debacle between the Utah Democratic Party and the Utah Legislature last year, when the minority Party submitted a GRAMA request for emails related to redistricting. Legislative staff originally set the price tag for the public information at $5,000, which the Democrats agreed to pay. But when it came time to deliver, it turned out the request encompassed of three large boxes of paperwork with over 20,000 pages printed out. The Democrats paid the $5,000 fee they’d agreed to, but the legislature then requested an addition $9,250 to pay for the 500 hours of staff time and printing costs before they would release the public documents. Democratic leaders argued that charging a price to access public data ran counter to open government policies, and sued for the records to be made available. After 18 months legal battles, the judge ruled that not only should the Utah Democratic Party (or any other individual or agency) not have to pay large fees, but that the state owed the Democrats $15,000 for attorney fees.
The creation of a new website came about with the passage of SB 94 last legislative session, and comes on the heels of the most recent episode of the John Swallow scandal, where the investigation found out that massive amounts of emails, notes, and calendar appointments had mysteriously disappeared from Swallow’s work computer and cell phone, as well as his personal computer and cell phone.
While the website is a step in the right direction for advocates of open government, it is not required for lawmakers to upload their emails and documents onto the website—it’s voluntary. In the Legislative Information Technology Steering Committee, Representative Ryan Wilcox (Republican – Ogden) cautioned that lawmakers who publish information do so “at their own peril,” and noted that once data is out there, it is out there—once released on the internet, it is next to impossible to pull the information back.
Ultimately, it is unclear if the website will be used by lawmakers and even less certain that it will be an effective tool for the public.”It’s an experiment,” said Senator Curt Bramble (Republican – Provo).