Salt Lake County officials are proposing an ordinance that would close goverment records that "could engender shame, humiliation or embarrassment."
A draft ordinance, which would govern access to county records, says that any record where a "readily identifiable individual" named in a "delicate matter that could engender shame, humiliation or embarrassment . . . in accordance with accepted standards of social propriety" would be off-limits to the public and press.In addition, county officials may require that those seeking records get prior permission from people mentioned in the records. County officials could also inform people whose records are requested.
Jeff Hunt, attorney for Society of Professional Journalists, said he objects to the "shame" language and provisions regarding permission because he believes they aren't consistent with a new state law.
There's a potential that "they could close off practically anything with these three provisions," Hunt said. "I can't imagine the county would want to enact such a law."
The 19-page draft ordinance comes in the wake of legislative approval of a series of amendments to Goverment Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) in February. The act, which becomes law July 1, sets in place new classifications for government records and procedures for obtaining them.
Gavin Anderson, deputy Salt Lake County attorney, said Saturday that the "shame, humiliation and embarrassment" provision isn't meant to keep documents defined as public by GRAMA private. He said he only wants to protect the privacy of individuals named in county records, 90 percent of whom would be considered in the category of private "Joe Public."
Under the new law, the list of public documents includes initial police reports, tax and land records, minutes of open meetings, and employment records of government employees that detail names, salaries and job descriptions.
Anderson said the "shame" provision is meant for "gray areas" of the law. For example, he said when the county is party to court action involving county employees, the county wants to protect its personnel records.
Anderson said the ordinance's language was based on a few Utah Supreme Court cases involving the right of privacy. He did agree that the law could be abused by those who don't understand an intended narrow application.
Borrowing Salt Lake County's draft, Kane County commissioners recently considered identical provisions to close records. There, the public and press objected to the provisions in light of a DUI case involving County Attorney Jim Scarth. They worried that such a provision would perpetuate the government's refusal to allow access to documents that are public under the new law. Specifically, the Society of Professional Journalists has challenged officials' refusal to release records related to Scarth's DUI arrest.
Finally, the Kane commissioners agreed to adopt the state law, without any modifications. However, they still have not released the arrest records.
Hunt said that locally enacted exemptions, such as those considered by Salt Lake County, may be overly broad and erode the public trust. He said that the Salt Lake County notification provisions may hinder attempts to investigate government corruption.