Wednesday, March 23, 2011

#GRAMA Work Group: Week One

A few quick, barely self-edited thoughts on the first GRAMA work group meeting today:

There seemed to be broad agreement that our focus should be on the existing GRAMA law, and not HB477.  This was encouraging.  The task of somehow turning HB477 into a good law is impossible.  Considering "bringing GRAMA into the 21st century" as a focus seems more reasonable.

On that point though, I found it odd to be discussing making changes to the existing open government law as if we've all agreed a case has been made for doing so.  Legislators have not made a compelling argument for minor updates, let alone sweeping changes likely to stand for the next two decades.  Reasons given amount to playing the victim (more on that below), and citing "fishing expeditions" without supplying evidence of any abuse that outweighs the importance of public confidence in an open, transparent process, and implications that the courts have over reached in interpreting GRAMA for the public good.  I would like to see more of a concrete argument (and evidence) for making any changes to GRAMA than those offered so far.

On the notion that legislators are the victims of Utah's open records laws, I offer: Buffalo Chips! Sen. Stuart Adams provided an example today of a GRAMA request of his emails.  He took issue over the fact that there were personal emails included, and though those emails weren't released, someone, somewhere read them.  Adams said he "felt" this was a violation of his 4th amendment rights.  An illegal search and seizure.  While I can sympathize with legislators having "feelings" (as I understand it, some of them do), this is a ridiculous point of contention with open records policy.  It amounts to wanting 1) private communications kept private and 2) no one getting to review records to determine what is private or in the public interest, except, I assume, the legislator responding to the request.  It's impossible to address Sen. Adams' "feelings" and have an open records law that will serve the public well.  Impossible.

That's not to say I don't sympathize.  Personally, this level of exposure would make me uncomfortable too.  And that is why I will never run for office.  But Sen. Adams did get himself elected, and now serves the people of Utah.  In the interest of public confidence in our governing agencies, lawmakers "feelings" should not rate higher than a transparency law with enough teeth to be effective.

Some great questions were thrown out today, and I literally can't wait to actually get into discussing some of the ideas and issues in depth.  But like I say, I'm worried about the tone set by lawmakers and this work group retaining credibility.  There are still a lot of valid questions unanswered on why the current set of transparency principles outlined in GRAMA are inadequate.

Sen. Pat Jones best framed what I think the umbrella focus of this group should be: Is it private until proven public, or public until proven private?

With all the talk today of "burden of proof," that's the money phrase.  Someone is going to own the burden of proof in any issue of public vs. private communication.  Legislators have not provided a convincing argument yet that that burden should fall on the public, the media, or non-profit advocacy groups to prove a need to access records of work done in our name.  If legislators want to shift that burden onto taxpayers, they're going to have to provide something more tangable than the way GRAMA requests leave them "feeling."

I'll post more on the 36 policy questions presented to the group today soon; great questions I'd like to hear your thoughts on before the group meets again next Wednesday.

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