Utah governor calls special session on new open-records law

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature will meet in a special session on March 25 to consider the repeal of a new open records law that exempts text messages from public scrutiny and increases the cost of records requests.

Gov. Gary Herbert issued the special session call last night, only a few hours after House Republicans voted in a closed caucus to support the repeal of House Bill 477. Instead of the changes taking effect July 1, a working group will study the issue and recommend ways to adapt the state's open-records law to new technologies, including text messages, voice mails and e-mail.

Earlier this month, the bill was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in less than a week.

“It is clear to me that H.B. 477, both in process and substance, has resulted in a loss of public confidence,” Herbert said. “By repealing H.B. 477 and forming a working group, the Legislature now has the opportunity to work with the media and the public to restore that confidence.”

Changes to the law should meet three principles, Herbert said, including protecting the public's right to know, preserving individual privacy and reducing costs for taxpayers.

House Republicans who initially supported the bill changed their position because of steady public outcry, said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.

Since the end of the legislative session, more than a half-dozen Republicans who voted for the bill have said it should be repealed.

“We need to take one step back and help the public be more comfortable,” Lockhart said.

While House Republicans supported the repeal, House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, said they were unanimously opposed to leaving the existing law untouched. Instead, they want recommendations from the working group put into a bill by the 2012 legislative session, if not sooner.

That working group was announced yesterday, as well. It includes members of the Legislature, government officials, citizen activists and representatives from traditional and new media outlets.

The bill drew more criticism than any other bill this session after being passed by the Legislature and signed by Herbert in only a few days and with minimal public input.

Hundreds of people rallied against it during the final night of the session, and a citizen group is gathering signatures for a referendum on the measure. The group includes leaders from across the political spectrum, from Tea Party organizer David Kirkham to former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.

Democrats in the House and Senate said in separate statements the bill was flawed and should have never passed. Instead, they said, the issue of open records in an electronic era should be studied during the interim session.

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