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Senate committee approves new GRAMA bill

SALT LAKE CITY — Last year, an attempt to change Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act led to a raucus Capitol Hill rally, outraged editorials and citizens throughout the state up in arms.

This year, the effort to amend the public records access law, known as GRAMA, met with no opposition as the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 6-0 Tuesday to send SB177 on to the full Senate.

"GRAMA is a tremendous old lady who has a tremendous amount of life and vitality in her," said Linda Petersen of the Utah Foundation for Open Government. "This doesn't only fix her, but gives her some tremendous new tools."

Those "new tools" include provisions for the online training and certification of public officials charged with responding to the GRAMA requests from the public. Those officials would have to recertify once a year.

The bill would also create an ombudsman to help both those trying to make requests and the state agencies responding to them.

But Petersen said she was also concerned about how the ombudsman would be funded. A similar pornography ombudsman in the Attorney General's Office was funded for two years, but hasn't been since, she said.

The new GRAMA bill results from a working group set up to look at the contentious issue after the Legislature passed then repealed last year's HB477 in a special session. The new proposal only deals with issues on which the working group came to a consensus, said Sen. Curt Bramble, the bill's sponsor.

One member of the working group, Jeff Hunt, an attorney for the Utah Media Council, praised the final product.

The proposal clarifies the difference between which records of public official public and which are private, Hunt said. It also strengthens the "balancing test," he said. That's language in the law which says that if the benefit to the public of releasing a record is "equal or greater than" the benefit to a private party, the public interest trumps private interest.

"This bill improves and strengthens GRAMA and improves and strengthens the public's right to know," Hunt said.

SB177 will now go to the full Senate for consideration.