Legislators looking at making email more accessible to public

29 01 2013

Utah State Senators on both sides of the aisle are trying to make it easier for the public to see what is in legislators’ email inboxes.

Sens. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, and Curt Bramble, R-Provo, have both submitted requests for bills that would deal with legislator’s emails. The efforts were inspired by the fight for documents related to the Legislature’s 2011 redistricting plan, which were being held back until the Utah Democratic Party paid almost $10,000 to cover the cost of putting the records together.

Lawmakers eventually released the documents after news outlets, including The Salt Lake Tribune, requested the documents under the Government Records Access and Management Act, commonly known as GRAMA.

“GRAMA is not working for journalists, the public or the Legislature,” Dabakis said.

Dabakis, who is also the state Democratic Party chairman, said he is working with Bramble on a way to improve access to records, especially email. He says the 1992 law was written before email and electronic communications became prevalent, and the rules should reflect that reality.

However, open-records advocates have noted that GRAMA is medium-neutral; it covers records regardless of whether they were painted on a bleached buffalo skull or stored on a computer server.

Bramble claimed that answering the GRAMA request for redistricting correspondence was a laborious task for him and staff.

“It took me some four hours of going through because with every email that had an attachment I had to open the attachment,  print it out and make sure that there was not any confidential information that had to be redacted,” Bramble said. “The real problem the Democrat Party had was why are they being billed a high amount, because it takes time and there are functions that are not easily done with the stroke of a key.”

Bramble said he wants to create a site where lawmakers can put their emails for the public to see without having to pay a fee. However, the site wouldn’t offer everything. Bramble said participation would be entirely voluntary, and lawmakers would still have the option to make the public formally request emails through GRAMA. Legislators would still be able to delete emails as often as they would like, just as they were counseled to do by their attorneys.

However, Bramble thinks some lawmakers may feel pressure to participate from constituents or journalists.

He said he plans to run is proposal past the Utah Media Coalition, which helped fight HB477, the Legislature’s attempt to gut GRAMA in 2011.

Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, said she applauds any effort to make the Legislature more open to the public. But she said the voluntary nature of the proposed site may not offer much transparency.

“It will be interesting to see how many legislators will provide their email,” Petersen said.

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