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Social media thwarted Utah lawmakers’ plans

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Near the end of the legislative session, Utah lawmakers quickly pushed through an overhaul of Utah's open records laws. But barely 48 hours later, the legislation was recalled. What happened?

Pignanelli:"I fear three newspapers more than 100,000 bayonets." — Napoleon. The Tea Party Movement, The Scott Brown Senate election, rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt... the 2011 Utah State Legislature. These are recent examples of when 21st-century technologies, combined with traditional media, have irreversibly changed a political trajectory. (Yeah, this sounds overblown, but even LaVarr agrees.)

As a former lawmaker, I "feel the pain" legislators suffer when attempting to comply with the Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) — which I cosponsored during my legislative career. At the end of each session, I sorted and packed all meaningful documents into a box — in anticipation of a GRAMA request that never happened. (I spent more time determining which freebies to take home.) Of course, today's officials have a 1,000-fold greater burden since GRAMA was established. They must worry about retaining e-mails, electronic documents, text messages, etc. Also, some journalists and bloggers are using GRAMA to demand access to thousands of records, often at great cost. The Capitol is reverberating with horror stories of "GRAMA abuse."

These are legitimate concerns ... which were not shared with the public before HB477 was revealed. As a lobbyist for the Utah Media Coalition/Utah Press Association, I can state there was no request to meet and resolve the issues beforehand. Indeed, the leaders of these organizations were surprised as to the extent of some GRAMA requests. There were smaller GRAMA scuffles in prior sessions, but the press and legislators always reached an accord.

By hard-wiring HB477 for passage in the last full week of the session, most Capitol Hill veteran politicos predicted the Legislature had achieved victory. Sure, those newspaper dinosaurs would scream and shout, but the public would not care about the nuances of some bizarre thing called GRAMA. (Even I was unsure as to shelf-life of the issue) No one predicted the outcome.

The 2011 Legislature deserves credit for fulfilling a hearty agenda: nationally recognized immigration reform, Medicaid cost controls, mission-based funding for higher education, public education reform, expanded accountability in state and local government. These accomplishments will be contrasted with the mistake to not make the GRAMA case to their constituents.

The controversy surrounding HB477 is a "learning opportunity" for all Utahns. Newspapers, and their affiliated Internet resources, remain very influential — as do television and radio media. Their concerns ignited the energy in blogging, Facebook, texting, etc. More importantly, Utahns across the political spectrum do care very deeply about open government — a wonderful revelation.

Webb: This was an amazing example of political "shock and awe" on both sides of this battle. It shows how social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, have forever changed politics.

To the surprise and dismay of the news media and government watchdog groups, lawmakers rammed through HB477. The deed was done quickly — planned and executed almost flawlessly to minimize pressure on lawmakers and strike before opponents had time to mobilize.

It worked — almost. News media lobbyists and groups were left wringing their hands, wailing that the sky was falling and wondering what hit them. Game over. Done deal. Pressure's off. All the governor had to do was quickly sign it. End of issue.

Sure, angry stories and editorials would be written (including an over-the-top Salt Lake Tribune front page editorial labeling Gov. Gary Herbert a pandering "political hack" if he didn't veto the legislation). But the average citizen really doesn't care whether a public employee's text messages are public documents. Sure, citizens will say they support transparency, but not one legislator would lose the next election over this relatively small issue. So, lawmakers appeared to have won.

Well, not quite. The social media freight train hit them before they could even hold a victory party.

Joel Campbell, a BYU communications professor and lobbyist for the Utah Press Association, set up a Facebook group called Save Utah's Right to Know. A couple of other Facebook groups also sprang up. Outraged journalists and government watchdog types flocked to these groups by the hundreds, working themselves into a frenzy, posting messages, exchanging information, outlining plans and strategy to harass legislators and the governor, providing lists and people to contact.

The campaign went viral, beyond Utah's borders. Bloggers and open government experts across the country weighed in, ridiculing Utah as worse than Mexico on access to government records.

An onslaught of messages and calls went to lawmakers and the governor. Angry journalists, joined by far-right activists, rallied at the Legislature.

Shell-shocked legislators, looking like the proverbial deer in the headlights, wondered what hit them. With surprising speed, the bill was recalled and amended to allow broad discussion and a special session before it takes effect.

The uprising occurred spontaneously, organically. No one really organized it. Even the media lobbyists were in awe, watching in amazement as their cause was embraced in a grassroots uprising that was beyond anything they could orchestrate.

Campbell was as surprised as anyone. He went from dejection to elation in 48 hours. It never would have happened without social media, he said.

So use of social media tools for political advocacy is here to stay. To be really effective, however, the issue has to engender passion and emotion. If those elements are in place, even a relatively small interest group can have a big impact.

It's interesting that old media had to use new media to win their political battle. Bottom line, this was an amazing demonstration of the power of an emotional special interest group unleashing social media.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.