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Closed meetings fall into a 'black hole'

SPJ names its worst defenders of public trust

A black hole — as defined by an astronomy Web site glossary — is a "region of space where gravity is so powerful not even light can escape." The American Heritage Dictionary refers to it as "a great void; an abyss."

And the Society of Professional Journalists' definition?

The SPJ Utah Headliners Chapter describes a Beehive State black hole as the shadowy realm in which Utah House Republicans, the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission and the Salt Lake County commissioners sometimes do business.

It's for that reason these government entities were among those named Saturday as the SPJ's "Black Hole" award recipients for the past year.

"It's a dubious honor. The public's business must be conducted in the sunshine," said Donald W. Meyers, the Utah Headliners Chapter president. "Elected leaders should abide by both the spirit and letter of Utah's Open Meetings Act and Government Records Access and Management Act."

SPJ leaders meeting at the University of Utah also announced their "Sunshine Award" winners to commend those who made extra efforts to do the public's work in the public.

The Utah Board of Regents received a "Sunshine" for changing its long-standing policy of selecting university presidents in secret. The regents announced the names of finalists for the Utah Valley State College position as a result of the change.

Beaver County Attorney Von Christiansen and 3rd District Court Judge Leslie Lewis also received kudos for "seeing the light."

Christiansen dropped the defamation prosecution of Ian Lake, the former Milford High student who had been arrested and criminally charged for operating a Web site with disparaging remarks about classmates and administrators. Lewis was commended for declaring that videotaping of Utah State Child Support Guidelines Advisory Committee meetings was allowed under Utah's Open and Public Meetings Act.

On the darker side, House Republicans stifled a bill aimed at opening up party caucus meetings. The SPJ believes it is unfair to close caucuses "because many debates and important decisions can be made in secret before they come to the full House for perfunctory votes."

SPJ officials said Utahns were kept in the dark regarding new liquor laws because the Utah Alcohol Beverage Control Commission met in small groups with lobbyists to discuss changes without much public input. This coming a year after the commission admitted it had held illegal meetings by telephone and promised it wouldn't violate the law again.

"Greasy spoon politics" is how the SPJ described the Salt Lake County Commission coincidentally showing up at the same Village Inn and then deciding who the chairman would be. "Unfortunately," Meyers said, "the officials didn't invite the public along to order pie and watch the action."

Others placed in SPJ's "Black Hole Hall of Shame" include: the Juab County Planning Commission for splitting into small groups to skirt around Open Meetings Acts rules so media couldn't come on a tour of the John Kuhni Sons rendering plant in Provo; the Virgin City Council for charging residents $25 to speak at public meetings; Centerville Mayor Michael Deamer for "losing" two dozen complaint letters about the fired Community Planning director; and officials with the Utah Anti-Discrimination and Labor Division, ironically for refusing to release a report about alleged discrimination at the agency that's set up to protect employees from discrimination.

Attorney Jeffrey J. Hunt, an open meetings and GRAMA legal expert, lauded the awards before giving a workshop about the Freedom of Information Act.

"You should do this every year. As long as we have a government run by human beings there's going to be a need for Black Hole awards," he said. "It reminds them their job is to conduct the public's business in the public. You've gotta keep their feet to the fire."

And their meetings, if the SPJ gets its way, out of the dark.