Salt Lake Tribune uses UTA data to pinpoint crime

27 11 2013

After a long legal battle, The Salt Lake Tribune obtained data from the Utah Transit Authority as part of a countywide crime-mapping project.

After the newspaper won a ruling from the State Records Committee saying the data was public and should be provided free, the agency filed suit to reverse that decision. The suit claimed, in part, that UTA could not access the data because it was stored inside a third-party vendor database.

A settlement last month led to release of the data, which was used in a Sunday story that looked at the types of crimes committed along bus and TRAX lines in 2012. Among the findings: Passengers are more likely to be exposed to crime along bus lines but UTA reported only a handful of the most serious offenses, such as aggravated robberies and aggravated assaults.





Introduction

14 11 2013

Hello, I am Pamela Manson, the new administrator for Utah’s Right and also a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, covering various cities around the state.

Please send ideas, suggestions and concerns about Utah’s Right to webmaster@utahsright.com, or reach me at my own email, pmanson@sltrib.com. You can also follow us at @UtahsRight for database updates, information about open-records laws and transparency in government, as well as other news, including information about our upcoming redesign and new features.





Five vying for public seats on Utah State Transparency Advisory Board

1 08 2013

Members of the Utah State Transparency Advisory Board are sifting through five applications for the two newly created public seats on the board.

The new positions were created when the Legislature passed SB77, Sen. Deidre Henderson’s bill expanding the scope of the board from improving access to financial data to all government records. Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, was recently named as the committee’s chair.

The five are Steven Bagley, general manager of the Utah Department of Transportation’s Lester Wire Library and a technical writer; Christopher Bleak, president and CEO of the Utah Association of Public and Charter Schools and former executive director of the Utah Republican Party; former Rep. Holly Richardson, who is also a member of the State Records Committee; Phillip Windley, former state chief information officer; and Jason Williams, a technology consultant and talk-show host on KVNU.

Richardson, Windley and Williams also served on the GRAMA Working Group, which reviewed the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) in the wake of the HB477 controversy. Richardson also received Black Hole awards from the the national Society of Professional Journalists and its Utah chapter as part of the 2011 Legislature that passed HB477, the bill that would have gutted GRAMA.





Utah’s senators still looking at federal reporter’s shield law

31 07 2013

The Senate Judiciary Committee will decide Thursday whether reporters should be able to keep sources confidential without having to go to jail.

The committee is taking up the Free Flow of Information Act, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. The bill would create a qualified privilege for reporters, allowing them to protect confidential sources of information.

Utah Sens. Orrin G. Hatch and Mike Lee, both Republicans who sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, haven’t made up their minds yet.

“Senator Lee is still evaluating the law and has not yet made a decision,” Brian Phillips, Lee’s communications director.

Hatch spokesman Matthew Harakal said he was not aware of whether the state’s senior senator had taken a position on the bill. He said he was “still taking a look at it.”

“We just have to wait and see tomorrow,” Harakal said.

The shield law was first proposed in 2006 and again in 2009, but both times it died. This year’s incarnation came after the Justice Department subpoenaed phone records from the Associated Press.

The proposed shield law would be similar to ones in 48 states. The bill would offer journalists a qualified privilege to not disclose confidential sources.

The bill is supported by journalism organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.





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.





Advocate: Orem non-vote on UTOPIA payment playing in shadows of open-meeting law

1 03 2013

Orem’s decision to pump $24 million into the troubled UTOPIA fiber-optic network is gaining attention, but not because of the amount of money.

Rather, it was the lack of a public hearing — or even formal council  vote — to take the action.

The city agreed Tuesday to bond for $24 million, as part of its 2010 commitment to support the network. Orem is one of several Utah cities that are part of the UTOPIA consortium.

But the agreement wasn’t a formal vote of the City Council. The council rather gave its verbal consent to the bond issue, and there was no public hearing to find out if residents wanted the city to go further into debt to support UTOPIA.

Richard B. Manning, the city’s administrative services director, said a public hearing wasn’t necessary because the bonding is part of the city’s $65 million commitment to the network. He said the public would have a chance to weigh in on the issue when the city conducts a public hearing on the 2014 fiscal year budget later this year.

But others think the city should have done a public hearing.

Ryan Roberts, the Utah State Auditor’s local government supervisor, said the city needs to have a public hearing on any budget changes before the money is spent.

Joel Campbell, an associate professor of print journalism at Brigham Young University and a nationally-recognized open-government advocate, said the city’s actions violated the spirit of the Open and Public Meetings Act, at the very least.

“UTOPIA is such a big deal that it warrants an open debate,” Campbell said. “They need to stop playing in the shadows of the law.”

Campbell said the issue should have been put on the agenda as a formal action item, with a public hearing.

 





Bill shielding UTA trip information heads to governor’s desk

15 02 2013

The first bill of the 2013 legislative session to earn a “lights out” rating from the Utah Media Coalition is on its way to the governor’s desk.

SB12, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, would make trip data from the Utah Transit Authority private records under the Government Records Access and Management Act, commonly known as GRAMA. It puts the data in the same category as Social Security numbers and certain medical records.

Van Tassell, a Republican from Vernal (which is not served by the UTA), said the legislation was necessary given the UTA’s move to the a “tap-on, tap-off” system for paying fares with credit cards, cell phones or other devices. The UTA is looking at “distance-based” fares where people will pay based on how far they ride.

Van Tassell said the legislation would prevent a “free-for-all” for the data, as well as discourage divorcing parties from using transit data to track a philandering partner.

The media coalition, which includes The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, KSL, Valley Journals and other Utah media outlets, gave the bill a lights-out rating, meaning that it restricts government transparency, leaving the public in the dark.

“It is entirely proper to protect customer credit card information,” the coalition’s statement reads, “but this bill is overly broad, written to include trip information and other data that the public can use to analyze the transit agency’s efficiency without exposing transit customers.”

Joel Campbell, associate professor of print journalism at Brigham Young University and an open-government advocate, questioned whether there was a “crying need” for restricting access to the data. He said Van Tassell’s divorce scenario was “the most off-the-wall reason to close a record I’ve ever heard.”

Campbell said there are already provisions in GRAMA to protect truly private information, such as credit-card numbers. However, Van Tassell’s bill would make it impossible to access any information that could benefit the public.

The data can be used to show UTA efficiency, as well as which routes get the most riders at different times of the day.

To see how to contact the governor, click here.