Utah Legislature votes to repeal contentious open-records law

Monday, March 28, 2011

SALT LAKE CITY — After weeks of public flogging, the Utah Legislature has voted to repeal changes to the state's open-records law that exempts text messages from public scrutiny and increases the cost of records requests.

The repeal of House Bill 477 passed on March 25 with a strong majority in the House and Senate during a special session of the Legislature, which was called less than two weeks after the end of the general session.

The House passed it 60-3 and the Senate passed it 19-5.

The repeal now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert, who says he intends to sign it. He said in a statement the repeal would “restore public confidence” in the legislative process.

Despite the vote, Republican legislators were not happy about being called back to cancel a bill they passed barely three weeks earlier.

Senate Republicans reluctantly supported the repeal but made it clear they wanted revisions to the current law as soon as possible.

Those recommended changes are to come from a working group that includes legislators, media representatives, bloggers and government staffers.

Legislators want private conversations with family, friends and constituents to be protected and reduce the workload created by the sheer volume of electronic records.

Senators who voted against the repeal said the working group's suggestions would probably not help because the groups most actively involved in fighting H.B. 477 weren't interested in addressing those issues.

The opposition to H.B. 477 “has been an onslaught, but it's not to understand or come to a compromise, but to undermine the people who are elected to serve.” Said state Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley.

The bill has been actively opposed by the Utah Media Coalition, which includes most of the Salt Lake City newspapers and television stations. With the repeal, the records law is “saved,” says Michael O'Brien, the coalition's legal counsel, but only temporarily.

“As we now discuss ways to improve GRAMA, we must be prudent to preserve the intent and spirit of the law the people have worked so hard to save,” O'Brien said.

The changes brought national criticism, as well. The national Society of Professional Journalists awarded Utah's leaders their “Black Hole Award” for what they said was the most “egregious” setback to public-records access.

The repeal is a good first step for restoring public trust, but now legislators should leave the existing law untouched, said David Cuillier, the SPJ's Freedom of Information officer and a journalism professor at the University of Arizona.

“(The current law) works and accounts for what they want to protect,” Cuillier said. “My concern is they will come back with something very similar.”

Pointing a finger at the news media is not appropriate when legislators “simply messed up” by passing a bill affecting the general public with an expedited process, said state Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George.

“This has very little to do with the media,” Urquhart said. “It is the people's window into what we do.”

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