Betsy Ross, Chris Burbank win Utah Sunshine Awards, UTA gets a Black Hole

21 06 2013

Betsy Ross, former chairwoman of the State Records Committee was honored for her 18 years of advocating for open government.

The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave Ross one of its annual Sunshine Awards at a ceremony in Fort Douglas’ Officers’ Club Thursday.

Ross served on the board, which hears appeals under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), since its creation. She first served as the board’s legal counsel and then as the state auditor’s representative on the board. She did three stints as chairwoman.

During her tenure on the board, Ross was regarded as its institutional memory and conscience, always ensuring that those who appeared before the board received a fair hearing. She also used the position to push for greater access to public records.

When the Legislature railroaded through HB477, the 2011 bill that gutted GRAMA, Ross stood on the side of open-government advocates. In an op-ed column in The Salt Lake Tribune, Ross pointed out the ignorance that drove the bill, sponsored by then-Rep. John Dougall. She also invited lawmakers to come to a records committee hearing to see that their concerns about GRAMA were unwarranted.

No legislators ever took her up on the invitation.

Ross left the committee at the end of 2012, when she was fired by Dougall, the incoming auditor. Dougall claimed that she was let go because she was not spending enough time with legislators as the auditor’s director of legal affairs.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank also received a Sunshine Award for making the department’s daily watch logs available online. Previously, the logs would state that no significant events occurred, even on the night officers responded to the home of Uta von Schwedler, a University of Utah researcher who was found dead in her bathtub.

Von Schwedler, John Wall, has since been charged with her murder.

SPJ also awarded a Black Hole award to the Utah Transit Authority for its refusal to release information about former UTA CEO John Inglish’s retirement package. The Black Hole Award recognizes entities that egregiously block access to public information.

Eventually, UTA released the information, showing that Inglish’s pension was higher than what former U.S. presidents are paid.

The Utah SPJ chapter also noted that UTA continues to withhold crime data from The Salt Lake Tribune, despite a November 2012 order from the Records Committee to provide the information. The UTA appealed the committee’s ruling to 3rd District Court.

“Both of these instances reflect what seems to be UTA’s general stance that if they stonewall long enough when information is requested that they don’t want to share, the media will just move on,” Linda Petersen, Utah Headliners FOI chair said. “But this is information the public has a right to know. The media should not have to fight for it on the public’s behalf. UTA’s Black Hole Award is well-deserved.”





Oklahoma State’s handling of sex offender earns it a ‘Black Hole’ from SPJ

22 03 2013

Oklahoma State University’s decision to not tell police or students about a serial sex offender on campus earned it the national Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Black Hole award for 2013.

SPJ, the nation’s largest and broadest-based journalism association, gives out the award to government entities that flagrantly violate the public’s right to know. The award was announced Friday morning.

(Disclosure: As a member of SPJ’s national Freedom of Information Committee, I served as one of the judges for the Black Hole award.)

In the case of Oklahoma State, the university had received complaints that a student sexually assaulted several fraternity members. However, instead of calling police or notifying students about a possible sexual predator in their midst, the university quietly handled the issue in a closed-door administrative proceeding.

University officials maintained that they could not disclose information about the assaults because it would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the law that was intended to keep academic records such as transcripts and report cards from being disclosed publicly.

The U.S. Department of Education has clearly stated that FERPA cannot be used as an excuse to not notify police about a crime on campus, or to warn students about potential danger.

But emails obtained by the Associated Press revealed that administrators were more concerned about how the scandal would affect the school’s reputation than they were about student privacy.

Oklahoma State was nominated by Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“It’s really significant that SPJ has recognized a serial abuser of FERPA,” LoMonte said. “This spotlights a problem with FERPA.”

LoMonte noted that Oklahoma State has classified student parking tickets as FERPA-protected documents, allowing it to deny access to journalists looking into parking issues on campus. The university was also censured for classifying a sexual assault as a burglary on a campus crime report required under the Clery Act.

Oklahoma State joins The Wisconsin, Georgia and Utah legislatures, and the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services as a national Black Hole recipient. Utah received the first-ever national Black Hole award for its passage of HB477, a bill that would have gutted the Government Records Access and Management Act.

Public outcry, along with the national publicity from the award, led the Legislature to repeal HB477.





Utah SPJ looking for nominees for state Sunshine, ‘Black Hole’ awards

21 03 2013

Know someone who had done exemplary work promoting the cause of open government? Or how about a government agency or official who’s gone well out of their way at keeping the public in the dark?

The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists want to know, and give them their just rewards.

The chapter is seeking nominees for its annual Sunshine and Black Hole awards. The Sunshine Award recognizes those who have helped advance government transparency, either through legislation or grassroot efforts, such as fighting a law that would block access to public records, or to an activist whose fight helped promote greater openness in government.

For example, the 2011 Sunshine Award went to the coalition that led the opposition to HB477 and proposed an initiative to repeal the bill that would have eviscerated the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). It was that public outcry, along with aggressive coverage by the Utah news media, that forced the Utah State Legislature to repeal the bill.

The Utah Supreme Court also won a Sunshine Award for approving of a reporter’s shield rule, which allows journalists to protect sources of information from disclosure in court.

The Black Hole award is for someone who knows they are violating the spirit or letter of open-government laws, is doing it for personal or political motives, and their actions affect the public as a whole.

The best example was the members of the 2011 Legislature who railroaded HB477 through, despite public protests that the law would undermine government transparency in Utah. Other recipients include Provo officials for keeping documents pertaining to the sale of the iProvo network secret; Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, for proposing legislation to make public employees’ salaries private information; and Logan Mayor Randy Watts, for a policy mandating that all communication between journalists and the city be done by email.

To nominate someone for one of the awards, contact Linda Petersen at the Valley Journals at linda@valleyjournals.com. Be sure to include documentation as to why you think the person deserves a Sunshine or Black Hole award.