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.

‘Anonymous’ SUU employees’ identities finally see light of day

22 01 2013

There are now 1,500 additional names in Southern Utah University’s salary database for 2012, thanks to GRAMA.

The database we obtained from the state’s transparency website did not list the names of student employees or even the Cedar City campus’ police force. Because of the anonymity and technical difficulties with the database, we had to list the students in the aggregate.

As a group, these students were paid $4.7 million in salaries and benefits, putting them well above President Michael Benson and other SUU officials.

When I asked why the names were kept under wraps, the university’s controller, Michael Beach, informed me it was because of releasing student names might violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA is the law that makes academic records private, but some have seized on it as a cloak to hide documents that are otherwise public.

Recently, Granite School District invoked FERPA in an attempt to deny The Salt Lake Tribune records on its investigation of an alleged “inappropriate relationship” between Cottonwood High’s former head football coach and a student.

Beach also told me that the police officers’ names were redacted for “personal safety.” While the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) allows holding back information on undercover officers, it is inconceivable to think that the entire SUU campus police force, including its chief, are all undercover operatives.

To break through the logjam, I filed a GRAMA request for an unredacted salary database. The university’s initial response was to give me the same database as submitted to the state, with the same reasons for not fully granting the request.

After a GRAMA appeal challenging both withholdings, and noting, with help from the Student Press Law Center, that FERPA does not apply to student wages, we got the full database, which is now online. This gives the public, whose funds support SUU, a better look at how their money is being spent.

— Donald W. Meyers

Documents show Hurricane’s payment for Taser death, but still scant details of settlement

15 01 2013

Thanks to Utah’s open-records law, we now know how much a Hurricane police officer’s decision to use a Taser on a mentally ill man cost taxpayers.

As Brooke Adams reported, the southern Utah city paid the family of Brian Cardall $2 million to settle the family’s wrongful-death lawsuit against the city. The settlement states that the city does not admit to any liability by making the payment.

In return, the Cardalls drop their suit against the city, Police Chief Lynn Excell and Officer Kenneth Thompson, who is accused of firing two 50,000-volt charges from his Taser pistol into Cardall, who was unarmed, naked and having a bipolar episode on the side of a southern Utah highway on June 9, 2009.

However, if you’re looking for more details as to whether Thompson was disciplined or if he and his colleagues had to undergo training in dealing with people who are mentally ill or the proper use of “non-lethal” weapons, forget about it. Adams reports that the settlement precludes the parties from discussing any details, only acknowledging that the case was resolved.

The settlement does permit Cardall’s family, including his father, former KSL-TV editorial director Duane Cardall, to continue working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and police departments on how to help people with mental illness.


Kraig Powell wants lawmakers’ bill files open to public inspection

14 01 2013

Another Utah lawmaker wants to make the Legislature’s bill-drafting process more transparent.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, is working on a bill that would, if passed, make bills in the drafting process public documents. Currently, legislators can ask that their bill files, as the nascent bills are called on Capitol Hill, be designated as protected documents under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act. That section also covers trade secrets, security arrangements at the Utah State Prison and documents in pending real-estate negotiations.

Powell said his goal is to encourage more public comment during the Legislature’s 45-day annual session, when legislators rush to get through hundreds of bills before adjournment.

“I’ve often received phone calls with questions about the legislation that I have listed,” said Powell, who said he has kept his bill files public. “[The calls] provide input and give me insights.”

Powell is not the only lawmaker who is trying to pull back the curtains that mask Utah lawmaking.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, has sponsored legislation that would ban the use of so-called “boxcars” — bills that are filed with no text and a vague title. The boxcars are used as placeholders to allow a lawmaker to introduce legislation at a later time.

Powell said if his and Osmond’s proposals had been in place in 2011, the state may have avoided the entire HB477 debacle, when then-Rep. John Dougall introduced legislation gutting GRAMA in the last days of the session. The bill, which flew through both houses and was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, was repealed after a huge pubic outcry.

Claire Geddes, an open-government advocate, praised Powell’s efforts to force open bill files. Her only complaint with his bill? It wasn’t done sooner.

“Anything that is done secretly is not in the public’s interest,” Geddes said.

She pointed to HB320 in the Legislature’s 2000 session. That bill, which removed the Committee for Consumer Services from the utility-rate-setting process, was kept under wraps until the last weeks of the session, Geddes said. The move left consumer advocates scrambling to fight it.

Records committee wants log, time to examine Utah Highway Patrol trooper’s personnel file

10 01 2013

Sandra Senn will have to wait a month to find out how much of a Utah Highway Patrol trooper’s record she can look at.
The State Records Committee unanimously agreed to continue Senn’s appeal of an open-records request denial by the Utah Department of Public Safety, as the committee reviews the files to see how much can be released.
Senn is seeking information such as disciplinary records, employment records, training records and other personnel data on Trooper David Wurtz, who pulled over one of Senn’s friends in Park City in 2012. The friend, Rande A. Lee, is charged with driving under the influence, going 30 in a 25-mph zone and not staying in a single traffic lane.
“Even though this case involves a criminal case, I am not jumping on the Trooper [Lisa] Steed bandwagon,” Senn said, referring to the former Utah Highway Patrol trooper accused of falsely charging people with driving under the influence.
Rather, she said it was looking at the dashboard video of the traffic stop that raised questions about Wurtz. She said from his actions, and how she said Wurtz had to ask his supervisor for help with things she said a five-year highway patrol veteran should have known,, that he may have had some “personnel issues.”
When Lee’s attorney, Greg Skordas, didn’t pursue looking into Wurtz’s background, Senn stepped in and made the requests. Skordas is also representing Steed.
Lana Taylor, the assistant attorney general representing the Department of Public Safety, said some of the information that Senn sought was actually with the Department of Human Resources Management. She said Senn did receive paperwork indicating that Wurtz was disciplined in 2009, and some training reports, but she said other information was deemed protected. She said the law protects disciplinary records where the accusation was not proven or the appeals have not run out. She said some of the reports would also expose the names and contact information of witnesses, as well violate Wurtz’s right to privacy.
“He is a [highway] trooper. He has no expectation of privacy,” Senn said. “Anything that deals with his job performance or credibility should be an open book.”
After reviewing the records in a closed session, the board voted that performance reviews were private records and couldn’t be released, but chairman Lex Hemphill said the board would need more time to review the rest of the documents. He chided Taylor for not providing a log explaining which documents were being denied and for what reason. He also said that if there were any documents that could be released to Senn, the state should do so.

Lawyer wants disciplinary records on Utah Highway Patrol trooper

9 01 2013

The State Records Committee will decide tomorrow whether a defense attorney can see a Utah Highway Patrol trooper’s personnel records.

The committee will hear an appeal from Sandra Senn, an attorney representing Rande A. Lee, who was charged with driving under the influence, failing to operate a car in a single lane and driving 30 mph in a 25-mph zone in early 2012. Senn sought personnel records on Trooper David Wurtz, including disciplinary and training records, which she said could help her client.

The Department of Public Safety released a 2009 disciplinary report on Wurtz, showing he received a three-day unpaid suspension for deleting 36 incident reports without completing them. Probationary reports from 2006 and 2007 also noted Wurtz’s problems with spelling and grammar in reports,  driving in a less-than-safe manner to a fatal accident, putting himself in danger by not asking someone he pulled over to remove his hands from his pockets, and bluntly asking a driver he pulled over if she had been drinking.

But the department held back other records, citing a provision in the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) that says the records are protected, except for disciplinary reports where the discipline has been upheld and the appeals have been exhausted.

Senn, in her filing with the records committee, compared the UHP’s refusal to hand over the disciplinary records to the patrol’s reluctance to release information on recently fired Trooper Lisa Steed. Two judges had found that Steed lied on the witness stand and a memo surfaced accusing her of falsifying a report in a DUI case.

Steed is being investigated by the FBI, and some of those she had pulled over are suing her and the UHP, claiming they were falsely accused of driving under the influence.

“It is entirely possible that in the Lane DUI case, materials concerning Trooper Wurtz’s background are being withheld for an improper purpose, the same as they were withheld in Trooper Steed’s case. Or maybe not,” Senn wrote. “But the state has refused every attempt to have someone other than UHP employees or a UHP lawyer make the decision about what should be produced.”

The meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. in the Courtyard Meeting Room at the Utah State Archives, 346 S. Rio Grande St., in Salt Lake City.

Gunnison hospital wants to keep doctors’ wages secret

8 01 2013

Gunnison Valley Hospital will comply with the state’s open-records law — to a point.

Hospital representatives told the state Transparency Advisory Board Thursday that the hospital has determined it is subject to the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), and will release financial information, including salaries for most employees. The hospital, founded in the 1940s, was sold to the cities in Sanpete County’s Gunnison Valley.

But Mark Dalley, the hospital’s chief executive, said the hospital’s lawyers advised them that they could withhold the data on the hospital’s doctors. Doing so, Dalley said, would put the hospital at a competitive disadvantage to private hospitals when it comes to hiring doctors.

GRAMA does allow public agencies to protect information that would cause “unfair competitive injury.” But it also states that salary information for public employees is a record that must be released. State law also requires governmental bodies and agencies with budgets exceeding $1 million to post financial data on the state’s transparency website.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, the board’s chairman, said after the meeting that the board can only address policy issues, while the hospital’s plan to hold back physicians’ salaries is a legal question that would have to be resolved in the courts.

Osmond wants to derail Legislature’s boxcars in name of transparency

7 01 2013

As my colleague Robert Gehrke reported, Sen. Aaron Osmond wants lawmakers to put their bills out in the open.

Osmond is introducing a resolution to amend the Legislature’s rules to ban the so-called “boxcar” bills — a blank bill with a vague title — lawmakers use for last-minute lawmaking.

“My goal is to create an environment where the public and those affected by legislation would have plenty of time to read and respond to legislation before it hits the floor,” Osmond told Gehrke.

Osmond’s bill, SJR3, would require lawmakers to file bills with a title and “reasonably specific” description of what it would do at least two weeks before the Legislature begins. A legislator who would want to open a bill file after that time would have to get two-thirds approval of both houses. Budget bills would be exempt.

Joel Campbell, an associate professor of journalism at Brigham Young University and an open-goverment advocate, commended Osmond’s bill.

“Boxcars, along with other measures to get a bill through quickly to distract the ‘competition’ is not good government,” Campbell said.

Had Osmond’s plan been in place in 2011, the Legislature may have avoided the whole HB477 debacle. For those of you who forgot, that was when then-Rep. John Dougall sprung a bill gutting the Government Records Access and Management Act in the waning days of the Legislature. The Republican leadership railroaded the bill through the process and to the governor’s desk.

The resulting public outcry, which included rallies on Capitol Hill and an initiative effort to repeal the bill, forced lawmakers into special session to repeal HB477. The bill also earned Utah the first-ever national Black Hole award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Interestingly, Osmond was appointed to fill the vacancy created with Sen. Chris Buttars’ resignation. Buttars was the only Republican legislator to vote against HB477.

New York lawmakers want gun permits private after newspaper names pistol owners

4 01 2013

In the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., two New York legislators are proposing a bill to control information about gun owners.

New York State Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, and Assemblyman Steve Katz, R-Yorktown, want to amend the state’s Freedom of Information Law after the Journal News published a story on pistol permits issued in Rockland and Westchester counties. The report also included an interactive map showing the names and addresses of permit holders, although the map could not be searched by name.

The permit data is a public record in New York, and the paper obtained the data by filing public records requests.

The article and map provoked outrage, with bloggers posting names and addresses for the newspaper’s staff and someone sending a powder-filled envelope to the paper’s office. Some critics say the article stigmatized gun owners, while others claimed it created a map for criminals who are either looking for homes with guns to steal or homes where the owners don’t have guns.

“The Journal News has really come up with the perfect map for the perpetrators and for the stalkers and for the criminals,” Katz said in a Journal News article. “They have yet to give us a cogent reason why, except for the reason that they can. I am sorry — that is not acceptable.”

The map only shows people who own registered handguns —pistols and revolvers. New York residents do not need permits for rifles or shotguns, so a burglar looking for a defenseless house may be fatally disappointed.

And in Putnam County, New York, where the paper has a request for permit information pending, the county clerk has announced that he will not fill the request, even though he is required by law to do so.

“It’s really clear-cut,” Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association, said in an Associated Press story. “The existing law doesn’t have exemptions in it. It says the information is subject [to the open records law].”

While some can debate the journalistic merits of disclosing the permit information, gutting a public-records law may not be the right solution. In Utah, the Government Records Access and Management Act’s declaration that names of concealed weapons permit holders is protected from public disclosure creates its own, unintended problems.

When Mark Vreeland pleaded no contest to impersonating a police officer, the self-described neighborhood activist said the conviction would not cost him his concealed-carry permit, even though in court he said he almost drew the gun on the BYU student he pulled over and grilled about his immigration status. When I attempted to verify that with the Department of Public Safety, not only could I not be told whether Vreeland’s permit was yanked, I couldn’t even be told if Vreeland had one.

Settlement between Brian Cardall’s family, Hurricane police confidential

2 01 2013

Attorney Peter Stirba said the wrongful death lawsuit filed against Hurricane in the death of Brian Cardall has been settled in the best interest of all parties.

The problem is, the public is forced to take Stirba’s word for it. Stirba, who represented the city, Police Chief Lynn Excell and Officer Kenneth Thompson, said the details of the settlement were confidential.

Cardall’s family sued the city, Excell and Thompson, who delivered two shocks from a Taser pistol to Cardall when he was having a bipolar episode on the side of a southern Utah highway in 2009. Cardall died shortly after the second shock was delivered and, Cardall’s family alleges, failed to provide medical treatment when he stopped breathing.

The public, who will foot the bill for the settlement, is in the dark. And that concerns at least one open-government advocate.

“There’s no doubt that the details of the settlement are of public interest,” said Linda Petersen, chairwoman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ national Freedom of Information Committee. “Obviously in the case of wrongful Tasering, the public has a huge interest in knowing what its police force is doing. ”

Petersen, who is also executive director of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, also questioned how a public entity could keep a lawsuit settlement away from the public. Normally, legal agreements involving cities and towns are public record.

Along with not knowing about how much money the city paid to settle the Cardalls’ claims, the public also doesn’t know if the city is taking any steps to ensure the episode is not repeated, such as training officers in dealing with mentally ill people or proper use of Taser pistols.

In the wake of Cardall’s death, the Utah State Legislature passed a resolution encouraging police departments to provide officers with better training in how to respond to people with mental illness. But resolutions do not carry the full weight of a law, and there’s a difference between encouraging and mandating that someone do something.

Do you think the settlement should be made public as a matter of accountability?