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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

GRAMA Revisions: Setting the Record Straight

By Senator David L. Thomas, and Representative Douglas Aagard
Co -Chairs of the GRAMA Task Force

The recent editorials in Utah’s major newspapers regarding the GRAMA Task Force appear to leave a false impression on the scope and proposals of that working group. The legislation which formed the GRAMA Task Force did not impose limitations. Rather, its charge was to allow the Task Force to conduct the first full review of GRAMA since 1992. That is exactly what our Task Force is doing and what is expected by the public. The Task Force has been meeting since May and has taken over 14 hours of discussion and public input in putting forth its recommendations. This has been a time consuming process involving much public discussion and debate. To the extent that the media’s arguments have not been persuasive, their suggestions have not been incorporated into the Task Force’s findings. However, to insinuate, as many editorial pages have, that the Task Force wants to put a cloak of secrecy on government is yellow journalism in its worst form.

While we appreciate the news media’s opinion, let’s be honest - the purpose of GRAMA is not to provide source material on public officials for the media in order to sell newspapers. GRAMA’s purpose is to give access to information dealing with the conduct of the public's business. To that end, the Task Force is considering a number of changes to GRAMA. Let us address three that have taken center stage in the editorial pages.

E-mail

The Task Force is considering updating GRAMA to include electronic documents, like E-mail. According to our legal counsel, the current status of the law is that unprinted E-mail messages are not documents under GRAMA. Apparently, the news media forgot to tell any of its readers that it has NEVER had access to legislative E-mail. And no, Rocky Anderson is not a legislator so this would not impact his E-mail. The Task Force has indicated a willingness to open up legislative E-mail messages with a caveat. E-mails between legislators and staff would still be protected, and with good reason. Legislators want an open and candid dialogue with their staff - they do not want staff sugar coating something because of fears of release under GRAMA. That leads to bad public policy, which is antithetical to what GRAMA was trying to achieve. By way of comparison, the Freedom of Information Act protects all internal agency documents. Our proposal would allow much broader access than does the federal government's current policy.

Constituent Correspondence

The task force is considering expanding the protections already in GRAMA with respect to legislative correspondence with constituents. Why? Because most of that correspondence is of a personal nature. Many constituents seek advice from their elected representatives on personal matters. For example, a family may be dealing with a child who has a medical problem and wants advice on who to call for assistance. Using GRAMA to pry into private matters is not in the public interest and would make a mockery of the GRAMA statute. Legislators have long had this protection under GRAMA for the public policy reasons described above, and there is no reason why similarly situated constituents should not be accorded the same privacy protections.

Identity Theft

The Task Force is also considering how best to protect Utah citizens from identity theft. A combination of a number of personal identifiers is all a criminal needs to steal your identity. Government should not have to divulge those personal identifiers. One of our recommendations to protect Utahns is to make information, like home addresses, inaccessible. This will not cripple the real estate industry as editorials have suggested. The Task Force has been working with real estate groups to ensure against such an outcome and have been assured that, although it may be inconvenient, it will not have a negative impact.

An important part of our mission in reviewing the GRAMA statute is protecting our citizens from crime.

The GRAMA Task Force has spent many hours reviewing this important part of open government - the ability to access information. However, it demeans the process for the media to make irresponsible attacks when their arguments do not prevail in the course of the normal legislative process.

This op-ed piece appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Daily Herald.

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