2013 Legislature: Not worst on open-government issues, but could have done better

10 04 2013

If the 2011 Utah State Legislature, which railroaded HB477 through, was regarded as the worst for access to public records, 2013 was a significant improvement.

“In the end, it was good for open government,” said Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

One noticeable difference: Legislators were more willing to consult with the Utah Media Coalition — which includes The Salt Lake Tribune and other Utah media outlets — on open-government bills. In contrast, HB477, which gutted the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), was written in closed-door meetings and rushed through committee meetings in the waning days of the Legislature.

“I never saw so much effort by the Legislature to include the media,” Petersen said. “They still have the notion that open government is about media access.” Petersen said open government is for all Utahns, and journalists use it as representatives of the public.

But lawmakers could have done better, as they allowed some bills to pass that restricted access to public records such as Utah Transit Authority trip data and jail booking photos.

“I’ll give them an A-minus or a B-plus,” said Joel Campbell, associate professor of print journalism at Brigham Young University. “They rejected some bills that would have closed access to government records and passed bills that gave access.”

On the plus side, legislators passed SB77, Sen. Deidre Henderson’s bill requiring recordings and written minutes of public meetings to be posted on the state’s public meeting notice website. Campbell said the Spanish Fork Republican’s bill puts the meeting records together in one place, rather than having people looking all over the Internet for different websites.

Henderson’s other open-government bill, SB283, is one that, Campbell says, looks good on the surface. It directs the state’s Transparency Advisory Board to look at making more public records available on the state’s Transparency website.

But, Campbell noted the details give cause for concern. The board’s final recommendations have to be approved by the Legislature, a body Campbell said has been too willing to close access to public records.

SB94, Sen. Curt Bramble’s open-government bill creates an online repository lawmakers can place email into, so the public can see it without having to file a GRAMA request. It also takes away the state auditor’s seat on the State Records Committee, making it a public seat.

Campbell said the email repository looks good on paper, until one realizes that participation in it is voluntary. He doesn’t see too many legislators willing to contribute to it if left to their own devices.

And the records-committee provision is a point of concern for Campbell and others. In December, incoming State Auditor John Dougall — who sponsored HB477 when he was in the Legislature — fired Betsy Ross, the auditor’s representative on the committee.

Ross was an opponent to HB477 and regarded as a champion of open government.

The Legislature did shoot down HB307, Rep. Brian Greene’s proposal to strip birthdates off public records such as voter rolls and court records. Greene, a Pleasant Grove Republican, claimed the bill was necessary to protect Utahns from identity theft and elder abuse, even though critics — including the leaders of the state Democratic and Republican parties — pointed out that there is no case where someone used public records to commit identity theft.

But the Legislature also failed to pass Rep. Kraig Powell’s HB207, which would have required public entities to post meeting notices three days before a meeting. Campbell said that would have provided people with more information on what public entities are doing, but it was watered down at the request of the Utah League of Cities and Towns on the grounds that it could open cities to lawsuits if someone questioned whether any last-minute agenda items were truly “unforseen.”

Campbell and Petersen noted a few bills restricting public access did get through.

SB12, sponsored by Vernal Republican Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, makes Utah Transit Authority trip data a protected record. Van Tassell said it would bar people from using GRAMA to find out if their spouse is cheating on them by using UTA to visit a paramour.

Another bill was HB408, Rep. Paul Ray’s bill requiring people who want copies of mug shots to sign a statement swearing that they won’t post the pictures on websites that charge people to remove them. The Clearfield Republican said it was necessary to protect people who had been arrested and either not charged or had the case dismissed from being haunted by the mug shot.

Campbell said those bills highlight the need for a committee with expertise in open-government issues to review bills and make recommendations.



Should open-government violators go to jail?

5 04 2013

Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, recently called for more incentives for government employees to hand over public documents.

“Nobody ever got fired from a government job for not responding to a FOIA request fast enough,” Dalgish told a Sunshine Week gathering at North Carolina State University.

One North Carolina legislator, state Sen. Thom Goolsby, attempted to address that with Senate Bill 125. The bill would fine government employees who refuse to release public documents $200, or put them in jail for up to 20 days.

Goolsby, on his blog, said the intent is not to throw bureaucrats in jail but to remind them in no uncertain terms that records are presumed open and should be released upon request.

“Only an extremely dim-witted bureaucrat or politician will refuse to give out a government record or close a meeting, unless they are told to do so by their lawyer,” the Wilmington Republican said.

The bill is currently sitting in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Should it pass, North Carolina would become the 16th state to implement a penalty for failing to fill an open record’s request. Utah is one of those states, making it a class B misdemeanor to deny a records request under the Government Records Access and Management Act.

But don’t expect to see pictures of bureaucrats who have denied government records requests on you local mug-shot website. Paul Murphy, the Utah Attorney General’s spokesman, said his office could not find any record of anyone being convicted under the statute.

A check of court records dating back to 1997 did not show any GRAMA-related convictions.

Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, said the most egregious violations of GRAMA should be prosecuted, but she said it is hard to say whether the criminal penalty would be enough to convince agencies to release records.

It’s now the law: No mug shots for those who charge to take them down

2 04 2013

Yesterday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill that forces people who want copies of mugshots to swear that they won’t post it on websites that charge to remove them.

HB408, sponsored by Clearfield Republican Rep. Paul Ray, subjects violators to the same penalties as those who lie to police officers. Ray said he sponsored the bill at the request of Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, who  was concerned about the proliferation of mug shot magazines and websites.

Ray and Winder said the sites were not fair to people who had been arrested, not charged and were trying to get on with their lives, only to find their booking photos available through a Google search.

“The purpose of these mug shots is to identify criminals,” Winder told the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee during a hearing on the bill, “not bully or harass citizens.”

Some of the sites offer to take down a mug shot, but only after a fee is paid. While slcmugshots.com states it will take down mug shots for free if proof that a charge has been dismissed or the person was acquitted was provided, it also runs ads for a firm that charges for “immediate removal” of mug shots from the Internet.

Winder’s office no longer posts mug shots online, while the Utah County Sheriff’s Office only posts tiny thumbnail shots that cannot be enlarged easily. The Weber County Sheriff’s Office still provides online access to mug shots

But open-government advocates warn that the bill sets a dangerous precedent of government demanding to know what someone intends to do with public information.

“The whole purpose of GRAMA is if a record is public, you should have it and not have to explain why,” Hunt said.

Must-see TV: Video cameras going into Utah trial courts

1 04 2013

As of Monday, more Utahns will be able to get a look at what happens in Utah’s trial courts.

That is when new rules went into effect, permitting television cameras to record trials in the state’s courtrooms. Utah is the 20th state to permit television cameras in trial courtrooms.

Previously, only one still camera was allowed in a trial courtroom, while video cameras were permitted at the appellate level.

The rules permit one video camera in a courtroom, with the video to be shared with all other media outlets. The rule also permits people to use tablet computers, laptops and smartphones in courtrooms — as long as they don’t use them to take photographs.

As of Monday, Utah State Courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer received four requests for video cameras in trial courts.

Proponents of the rule believe that televising trials will make the court system more transparent.

“For the first time, the public will be able to actually see and hear what transpires in the courtroom,” Salt Lake City media attorney Jeff Hunt told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It will be an unfiltered version of what’s actually going on.”

When the Utah Judicial Council voted on the rule in November, three judges  — 2nd District Judge Glen Dawson, 3rd District Judge Paul Maughan and 4th District Judge David Mortensen — objected, specifically to the provision that videotaping is presumed to be permitted. The judges said that robbed jurists of discretion to control their courtrooms.

The rule does allow the judge to order the cameras off in sensitive cases or when protected testimony is provided in court — such as when children or sexual assault victims testify.