Gov. Gary Herbert nominates Marie Cornwall for State Records Committee post

10 09 2013

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is following the State Records Committee’s recommendation and nominating Marie Cornwall as the committee’s second public member.

Herbert has sent Cornwall’s name to the Utah State Senate, which will have a confirmation vote when it meets on Sept. 18. However, that is six days after the committee’s regular meeting, leaving the committee one member short for another month.

Cornwall is an emeritus sociology professor at Brigham Young University and lives in Bountiful. The committee gave her a “soft recommendation” in June, due to only seeing her resume.

Cornwall was one of five people who applied for the newly created position. The others were Sarra McGillis, a corrections specialist with the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office; James Weightman, director of internal audits at the Salt Lake County Auditor’s Office; and Sheri Bernard, a consultant who had works in health-care information management.

The position was created as part of SB94, Sen. Curt Bramble’s bill that amended the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). The bill also removed the state auditor’s seat on the body that hears GRAMA appeals and replaced it with a second slot for a member of the public.

Bramble said the change was made at the request of State Auditor John Dougall, who wanted to avoid any conflicts of interest if his office were to audit the committee. Dougall — who as a legislator authored HB477, the bill that gutted GRAMA and was repealed after public outcry in 2011 — fired the auditor’s representative on the committee, Betsy Ross.

Herbert’s previous appointment to the board was Holly Richardson, a conservative blogger and former legislator who supported HB477, as a public member.





Governor Herbert still looking for public member for records committee

23 07 2013

Filling a vacancy on the State Records Committee wasn’t on the Utah State Legislature’s agenda this past week.

While Gov. Gary Herbert sent recommendations to the Senate for 27 positions that needed advice and conset, including former LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton appointment to the University of Utah Board of Trustees and former LDS General Young Women’s President Elaine S. Dalton’s nomination to serve on the Utah Valley University Board of Trustees, there was no nominee for the records committee.

The Legislature voted earlier this year to take away the state auditor’s position on the committee and add a second seat for a public member. Four people have applied so far for the position on the body that hears appeals of records denials.

The committee gave a “soft recommendation” to Marie Cornwall, an emeritus sociology professor at Brigham Young University in June.

Ally Isom, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Herbert will likely send a name to the Senate for its consideration in September. Isom said Herbert is not trying to drag out the process.

“It’s been a busy, busy month,” Isom said, noting that Herbert has been on a trade mission.

The new appointee would replace Betsy Ross, the auditor’s representative on the committee who was fired in December by incoming state Auditor John Dougall. Ross had opposed HB477, the bill Dougall sponsored as a legislator in 2011 that would have gutted the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).

Dougall claims he axed Ross because he did not believe she was doing her job as the office’s liaison to the Legislature. He also endorsed removing the auditor’s seat, as it would allow him to audit the committee without worrying about a conflict of interest.

The Legislature did address an open-government issue during the special session. It voted to allow the House committee investigating Attorney General John Swallow to close some of its meetings and to keep its records away from the public.





Gov. Gary Herbert still mulling choices for State Records Committee vacancy

25 06 2013

Gov. Gary Herbert expects to nominate someone to fill the newly created public-member’s seat on the State Records Committee by next week.

Nate McDonald, a Herbert public information officer, said the governor is still awaiting recommendations on the people who have applied for the job.

Four people applied for the position, and the records committee offered a “soft recommendation” for seating Marie Cornwall on the committee. Cornwall, according to her résumé, is an emeritus sociology professor at Brigham Young University who lives in Bountiful.

Committee Chairman Lex Hemphill said the board couldn’t make a stronger recommendation because it was only going on applications and did not interview any of the candidates.

The other applicants were Sarra McGillis, a corrections specialist with the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office; James Weightman, director of internal audits at the Salt Lake County Auditor’s Office; and Sheri Bernard, a consultant who had works in health-care information management.

The applicants’ information was obtained through a Government Records Access and Management Act request to the committee. Patricia Smith-Mansfield, the governor’s representative on the committee, did not include the applications in the board’s agenda packet for its June 13 meeting.

“I did not want it to become a public record,” Smith-Mansfield said.

The position was created as part of SB94, Sen. Curt Bramble’s bill that amended the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). The bill also removed the state auditor’s seat on the body that hears GRAMA appeals and replaced it with a second slot for a member of the public.

Bramble said the change was made at the request of State Auditor John Dougall, who wanted to avoid any conflicts of interest if his office were to audit the committee. Dougall — who as a legislator authored HB477, the bill that gutted GRAMA and was repealed after public outcry in 2011 — fired the auditor’s representative on the committee, Betsy Ross.

Herbert’s previous appointment to the board was Holly Richardson, a conservative blogger and former legislator who supported HB477, as a public member.





Unified Fire Authority, Utah Tax Commission coming before State Records Committee

12 06 2013

A Sandy man wants the State Records Committee to help him find out who accused him of illegal burning.

Larry Hartlerode had filed a request under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) for reports from the Unified Fire Authority related to its response to complaints that he was illegally burning in his Sandy yard. Hartlerode’s request was partially granted, with the name of the person who filed the complaint with the department being removed from the record.

“This information should be provided as per the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, specifically the right to confronted with witnesses against him,” Hartlerode wrote in his appeal.

The department said the name could not be released because GRAMA declares people’s addresses and phone numbers as private if the person reasonably expects the information to be kept in confidence. Department officials, in their response, said the person who filed the complaint requested anonymity because of fear of reprisals.

The committee is also hearing another appeal Thursday from Harshad Desai, who asked for copies of personal property audits done in Garfield County between 2001 and 2012, along with the auditors’ names.

The commission said Desai had received some information, such as the number of audits performed, but denied other parts of his request. The commission argued that audit reports are protected information because they involve commercial property.

The commission also argued that its work records are protected, and that it cannot give out auditors’ names in connection to the audits they worked on.

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.





Utah State Records Committee looking to fill vacancy for public member

13 05 2013

Do you have an interest in open government? The Utah State Records Committee is looking for you.

The committee is seeking applications from people interested in filling the vacancy for a second public member on the seven-member body. The committee hears appeals of records requests, as well as establishes records retention policies.

The board includes representatives of local government, news media, private business, the governor’s office and the public.

The current opening was created when the Utah State Legislature amended the law defining the committee’s membership, converting the state auditor’s position into a public member’s seat. State Auditor John Dougall asked for the change on the grounds that he didn’t want a conflict of interest if he had to audit the committee.

(Dougall fired Betsy Ross, the auditor’s appointee to the records committee, claiming she was not doing her job as the auditor’s director of legislative and government affairs. Ross, as the committee’ chair, had opposed HB477, the bill Dougall sponsored as a lawmaker that gutted the Government Records Access and Management Act).

The public member would be nominated by the governor, and approved by the Utah State Senate.

Lex Hemphill, the committee’s chairman, said interested parties can apply on the governor’s website, under boards and commission, or by contacting the board’s secretary, Susan Mumford, at smumford@utah.gov or at 801-531-3861. Hemphill said contacting Mumford would allow the committee to know who applied.





State records ombudsman offers primer on Utah records fees

26 04 2013

Rosemary Cundiff, the state’s records ombudsman, recently posted an explanation of what fees can be charged under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).

To put it in a nutshell, government entities can charge “reasonable fees” to cover the costs of producing records. The idea is that the employee who is filling the records request is being pulled away from other duties and there’s the cost of the paper and toner in the copier.

During the HB477 debacle in 2011, then-Rep. John Dougall attempted to expand the definition of reasonable fee to include the cost of benefits for said employee, the utilities for the office building and whatever else he could to jack up the fees.

Cundiff outlines what should be considered as a reasonable cost, such as only billing for the hourly wage of the lowest-paid person who can fulfill the request. That means if a $7.25-an-hour clerk can find the documents, the agency can’t bill you for the $200-an-hour lawyer to do the same thing.

Utah does allow for fee waivers, but as Cundiff points out — and many record seekers have learned the hard way — that the law says fees may be waived. In other words, an agency can waive fees out of the goodness of its heart, but is not legally required to do so.

This leaves the door open for some agencies to turn public records into a revenue stream, or use a fee as a way to discourage people from seeking records, since they are not commanded to waive fees.

State Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, attempted to address this by taking away the discretion in cases where the public benefited from releasing the document. But after the Utah League of Cities and Towns said the move would drive cities to the brink of fiscal ruin, lawmakers threw the bill into interim study, where open government advocates hope it will be considered and not allowed to die a slow, quiet death.

But in the meantime, what can people do to ensure that they are not paying too much for public records?

First, as Cundiff points out, there is no fee to merely look at a public record. People can do this to narrow their search to exact pages they are looking for, and thus reduce their copying costs. The agencies are barred from charging for staff time for these inspection sessions.

And if you want copies, make them yourself, as Joel Campbell, an assistant professor of print journalism at Brigham Young University pointed out. There are portable scanners that look like wands and don’t have to be hooked up to a computer to make a digital copy of a document. Or just use your digital camera or cellphone to take a picture of the document, as I’ve done in the past.

If the records are electronic, bring a thumb drive to copy them.

And if you get charged a fee, ask for a specific breakdown of the cost, line by line. And it helps to do a little homework before and find out what other agencies are charging for copy fees, as well as what the local copy shop charges for a photocopy. If a copy shop can make money off a 7-cent copy, why is a government agency charging 25 cents or even a dollar?

If all else fails, fees can be appealed in the same manner as denials. While the law says fees may be charged, the State Records Committee has found instances where an outrageous fee was being used as a means to deny access and ordered the fee waived.





Should records fee waivers be mandatory? Legislature puts off answering question

7 03 2013

Rep. Brian King attempted to address one of the issues that the GRAMA Working Group failed to in the wake of the HB477 debacle of 2011.

The Salt Lake City Democrat’s HB122 would have required a government body or agency to waive fees for records, once it has been proven that releasing the record would benefit the public more than an individual. Currently, the Government Records Access and Management Act states that entities “may” grant fee waivers when requests are made that are deemed to be in the public’s interest.

Instead, the measure has been thrown into interim study, where King and opponents of the bill are supposed to work out their differences, with the hope of bringing it back in the 2014 General Session.

When then-Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, unveiled HB477 in the waning days of the 2011 Legislature, one of its provisions called for  including administrative and overhead costs in the “reasonable costs” of producing a document. Which meant that an entity could not only charge for the actual cost of copying the document (which, ideally, should never be more than 2 cents a copy) and the salary of the lowest-paid person who can handle the request, but the employee’s benefits, the utilities for the office building and whatever else they wanted to tack on.

Fortunately, HB477, and its onerous fee schedule, were repealed amid the great public outcry from both ends of the political spectrum, and a task force was formed to address the so-called problems with GRAMA.

King, who sat on the task force, said the fee issue was one that the group didn’t address, and he decided to tackle it as a legislator.

His bill left entities the discretion of determining if a GRAMA request met the public-interest test — was the person seeking the records for the greater public good or for a purely personal reason? But, once a request was deemed to be in the public interest, the fees had to be waived, no ifs, ands or buts.

Not surprisingly, the Utah League of Cities and Towns objected. Lynn Pace, a member of the league’s board of directors, painted a dire picture of city recorders and county clerks getting swamped with voluminous records requests that had to be granted at no cost to the requester.

“If you broadcast in advance that whatever you are asking for is free,” Pace warned members of the House Political Subdivisions Committee, “the requests will get larger.” He even pointed to the Alta case, where a records request ran into thousands of pages and tens of thousands of dollars in fees.

But open-government advocates are quick to note that the Alta case was an extreme outlier, which is not a sound basis for making policy decisions.

But the current policy opens the door to potential abuse, with the fees used as more than recouping the basic copying costs.

“Fees can be charged in such a way that , even though, a document or record being requested is public, the fees that are charged could restrict access,” Betsy Ross, former State Records Committee chairwoman, said in a recent interview.

And the Utah State Records Committee has agreed, arguing in one case that a Department of Corrections policy limiting inmates to 100 fee pages of documents a year was denying access to records for inmates who couldn’t afford to pay for additional pages. While the committee said the department could charge for copies, it couldn’t use fees to block an inmate from just looking at the records.

When Utah Democrats sought records on how the Republican-dominated Legislature conducted the recent redistricting process, it was denied the records because lawmakers chose to bill them — and others who asked for the records — $15,000. The records were eventually posted online after several media outlets requested access to the papers, convincing the legislative leaders that there was a “legitimate” public interest in the information.

Open-government advocates should use the interim meetings as a time to show legislators that waiving fees for public-interest requests is worth more in credibility and transparency than the money entities may get from a requester.