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Media fighting GRAMA changes

What lawmakers deem as necessary housekeeping to modernize Utah's public records law would minimize public involvement in government business, a coalition of local news outlets says.

The Deseret Morning News, Salt Lake Tribune, KSL, Utah Press Association and the Society of Professional Journalists is calling for a group of nine state representatives and five senators to reject the proposals. The lawmakers are set to meet Tuesday for a sixth and final time to put the finishing touches on three proposed bills that would change how the public accesses government information — from the Legislature to the smallest town council.

The task force co-chairmen, Sen. David Thomas, R-South Weber, and Rep. Doug Aagard, R-Kaysville, said the 13-year-old Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) needs a comprehensive review, particularly in two key areas: There is no clear guidance on how governments should deal with technological ad- vances, such as digital databases and e-mail; and a growing perception among lawmakers that GRAMA is being used to harass government agencies or by attorneys gathering background information for lawsuits. There is also growing concern that business marketers are culling out private citizen information.

When the law was passed, "they only began to contemplate the value of data and they only began to comprehend the explosion of e-mail," Aagard said, adding that he knows of citizens filing repeated but unnecessary records requests just to swamp city workers with retrieving the information. Those concerns, combined with private information being used by marketers, prompted the creation of the task force, Aagard said.

Despite being "beaten up pretty good in the media," Thomas said most of GRAMA will remain intact. "We're not talking about dramatically changing GRAMA."

Several other groups representing title companies, appraisers, consumer credit bureaus, open government advocates and insurance companies see enough change to worry them that people buying homes or their agents would be prohibited from background information routinely obtained now.

One local development company has accused one of the co-chairmen of failing to disclose what it considers a conflict of interest.

Attorneys for Anderson Development, which is currently locked in a legal battle with Summit County officials over a development, say that Thomas — an assistant Summit County attorney — stands to benefit from changes to GRAMA by shielding county documents and e-mails from Anderson's requests for copies.

"He's just trying cover his tracks" said Anderson attorney Michael Hutchings. "David Thomas does not want e-mails of county and local government to be discovered because these e-mails often tell the true story of what's being done at taxpayer expense."

Anderson has filed suit, alleging racketeering and corruption and claiming that Summit County officials have demanded cash, gifts and donations to their favorite charities for zoning changes. County officials say Anderson Development is playing dirty to get higher-density housing it wants in Summit County.

Hutchings said Thomas' position on the GRAMA task force seems all too convenient, given that the documents Anderson is seeking would be more difficult to obtain under the proposed changes.

"He's going to benefit in a huge way," Hutchings said. "This at least ought to be disclosed."

Thomas said the allegations are unfounded. "Their intent, in my opinion, is they're trying to intimidate public officials. I think everybody knows what their tactics are."

Thomas said his e-mails are considered private under attorney-client privilege law and would be under the proposed changes. Also, Thomas said it is up to the entire task force to recommend the changes before the House and Senate committees consider any legislation.

Hutchings said his company has been trying to get e-mails Thomas has sent to federal officials and others outside the county, which Anderson claims are public under GRAMA.

Some changes would limit names, addresses and telephone numbers in government records to protect the privacy of citizens. Government entities could also charge "fair market value" for information if it is intended for commercial use. Public documents would also be limited to those "in connection with conduct of public business" and would exclude many e-mails and internal memos that aid in the creation of public policy.

News media attorney Jeff Hunt said some of the changes would make government less transparent.

"I very much believe that if these changes go through in their current form, they would be an extreme rollback on public access to government records," Hunt wrote in a letter sent to lawmakers Friday. "We're talking about some severe restrictions that are being proposed to limit public access records," Hunt told the Deseret Morning News.

Limiting records to those dealing with "public business," along with a list of exclusions, violates the spirit of open government, Hunt said. "The problem with that, we presume that if the government is owning and preparing records, it is presumed that they are conducting the public's business," he said.

Hunt also questions the timing and form of the task force. He points out that it took a coalition of lawmakers, citizens and special-interest groups two years to carefully craft GRAMA to strike a balance between protecting privacy and keeping government transparent. The current task force is comprised solely of lawmakers who have met monthly since May.

Aagard and Thomas say the task force's intent is not to close government off to the public but to address technology changes and abuse issues.

"We still do what's in the best interest of the citizens of Utah, and that's what we're trying to do," Thomas said.

Aagard said he wants to prevent people from abusing GRAMA. "People have discovered that they can use government as a hammer and slow it down and make it less efficient. We're trying to make it more efficient," he said.

Hutchings countered that efficiency isn't a hallmark of an open and democratic government, adding, "(government) worked very efficiently in the Soviet Union, and it works very efficiently in China."


Meeting is Tuesday

The Government Records Access and Management Task Force will meet Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. in Room W125 of the House Building.


E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com