Hard News Cafe, Utah State University: Story
LOGAN — Governor Gary Herbert has now signed House Bill 477, a law that restructures Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) and hides many records from public view, including politicians’ text messages and e-mails.
The bill passed through the Senate an uncharacteristic 90 minutes after it was passed in the House two weekends ago. Herbert delayed the implementation date for the law until July 1, to allow time for discussion and possible changes, he said.
From the political science department to the journalism and communications department to media outlets on campus, USU professors and students alike were both mystified and frustrated with the law as a whole.
“It’s a bad bill because it hurts every citizen in the state,” said Ted Pease, USU journalism and communication department head. “If HB477 becomes law, the citizens of Utah won’t have the right to know what their elected and appointed government officials are doing.”
Pease said he felt especially frustrated because most requests for government records are from Utah citizens.
“We have the right and the responsibility to know and understand what officials are doing in our name. Why would our elected lawmakers not want us to know what they are doing?” he asked.
Michael Lyons, USU political science department head, had several thoughts about why access to government records and communications was vital, particularly to a state so saturated with just one party.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” Lyons said. “Utah had almost a model open-access system as I understand it, and this bill simply limits public access to a whole lot of legislative communications.”
Aggie radio station director Jordan Allred was surprised by the quick pace in which the bill rushed through both the House and Senate.
“When I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh wow, that’s crazy how quickly it’s going through,’” said the broadcast journalism major, who first learned of the bill after seeing a link to an article about Herbert’s delay of its passing from a fellow student’s status on Facebook.
Landon Hemsley, also a journalism major, had questions both about why the Legislature would be so eager to see the bill passed, and how it would be fair to the public if made into law.
“I don’t know why they would want to hide anything,” he said. “I am by no means an expert, but the first question is why– are they trying to do something like that to hide? I would question their integrity, and why we don’t deserve access to (particular government records and communications.) It promotes the idea of big-brother government.”
Lyons said that just the presence of an open-records standard may have been the key factor to maintaining a transparent and open Legislature. Now, with a shield, those in the capitol may feel more secure working insidiously.
“When there is open access to communications of many kinds, that access may keep legislators more honest and to some extent the existence of access makes problem go away,” he said, adding that he doesn’t follow state politics closely enough to give specific examples of why it has been a benefit for the state to previously have had an open-records standard. “I don’t follow Utah state politics closely enough to point to cases, to say good thing we have this vigorous open-records act, because if it didn’t we wouldn’t have A, B, and C.”
Hemsley was also upset with the bill because it threatens to shield information flowing from devices that the public pays for with taxes, including cell phones.
“If the state is going to fund e-mails and cell phone bills, then don’t want us to see what’s in there, there’s always G-mail and AT&T,” he said.
Lyons explained that it’s very necessary for watchdogs to be able to closely monitor a party with so much imbalance of power on their side, as is the case in the Republican-saturated state here in Utah.
“You could rely on the power of the minority party to make public many of the inner workings of the majority,” Lyons said of the more equal balance of political power in other states.
“It’s harder to keep secrets and raise questions (in a one-party state). A relatively equal balance of equal power with a strong minority power means there will be public questions asked in a publicly visible way, but the majority party will be held responsible for things. But with an overwhelming majority, and really no opportunity for the minority party to capture power, then the minority party is much a much less important shield, and public access is thus much more important.”
Regardless of Herbert’s signing of the bill, Lyons said he is optimistic about the governor’s intentions in turning on his delay so quickly, although those intentions may be front-loaded with both aspirations for winning certain minds in preparation for campaigning another term, along with a mindset that may be slightly different than many of his constituents. “I think the governor genuinely wants to advance what he views as best for state, but his perspective is different than the conservative party of the legislators,” he said.
Ashlee Davis, a staff assistant in the USU journalism and communications department who majored in psychology when she attended college, echoed what others asked thought about HB477.
“As a citizen I don’t like that it passed because they’re keeping secrets,” she said.
With the extra time that Herbert has bought, Davis said she would like to see the governor organize a committee that discussed the pros and cons of less transparency, including focus groups that displayed various opinions. She said that such an initiative has been taken in the past, when GRAMA was first introduced.
They are measures that could help bring greater perspective to a bill that Twenty-somethings to Baby Boomers didn’t necessarily appreciate.
“Not allowing people to have access is ridiculous and stupid,” Hemsley said.