While everyone was heaping praise on Sen. Curt Bramble’s SB94, which would create an online site for the public to see lawmakers’ email, one major change went by virtually unnoticed.
The bill removes the Utah State Auditor’s representative on the State Records Committee, and replaces it a member of the public nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Utah State Senate.
Bramble said the change is being made at the request of the new state auditor, former Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland.
Dougall said he does not want his office to have a conflict of interest should he decide to audit the committee, which hears appeals of records-request denials under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).
This comes after Dougall fired Betsy Ross, the auditor’s legislative liasion, who also served as a member of the records committee for 18 years. The committee honored Ross’ tenure at its February meeting, praising her for her advocacy of open government.
One immediate effect of Bramble’s bill is that Ross’ seat will remain vacant on the committee at least until the bill’s fate is resolved. As of Thursday, it was still on the Senate’s second-reading calendar. Records committee members said in their most recent meeting it could be almost a year before the vacancy is filled if the bill passes.
When GRAMA was drafted and the records committee formulated, the intent was to have the auditor’s representative provide expertise on records retention schedules, the timetables showing how long government must hold on to documents.
Patricia Smith-Mansfield, the governor’s designee on the records committee, said that duty will likely be handled by the state archives.
Dougall’s request to take Ross off the committee has raised some concerns. An editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune notes that Dougall was the sponsor of HB477, the 2011 bill that would have eviscerated GRAMA had public furor not forced the Legislature to repeal it before it could take effect.
The editorial noted that Dougall’s firing of Ross didn’t pass the “smell test.” Dougall claimed that he “dismissed” Ross, who still works for the state Treasurer’s Office, because he couldn’t find a legislator that knew her. Ross was an opponent of HB477, and had invited legislators to come to the records committee to see that their concerns about GRAMA abuses were groundless.
The editorial also warned that Dougall could use his ability to audit the committee as a way to undermine GRAMA by harassing the committee.