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 Dougall — who as a legislator authored HB477, the bill that gutted GRAMA and was repealed after public outcry in 2011 — fired the auditor’s representative on the committee, Betsy Ross.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.

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Utah media fighting attempt to close hearing in soccer referee Ricardo Portillo’s death

15 05 2013

The Associated Press reports that lawyers for the teen accused of killing a soccer referee want the case closed.

The lawyers requested the order after a Salt Lake City television station asked for permission to film in the juvenile courtroom during the teen’s initial appearance. The teen is charged with homicide by assault after he punched referee Ricardo Portillo in the head after Portillo issued him a yellow-card warning at an April soccer game.

Portillo died a week later as a result of the injury.

A new court rule allows TV cameras in courtrooms for hearings. The rule does allow the judge to deny TV coverage in sensitive cases or where protected testimony — from children or sexual-assault victims — is given.

But the lawyers for the teen, who is not being named by most Utah news outlets because he’s only charged as a juvenile at this time, are going further than that. They want the judge to bar any reporting on the hearing.

The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, KSL, KUTV, KTVX and FOX 13 have joined together to challenge the order.

Austin Ritter, an attorney with Parr, Brown, Gee and Loveless, argues that closing the meeting goes beyond the authority of the judge.

And court decisions indicate that such a closure may be unconstitutional. In the 1986 Press Enterprise vs Superior Court decision, the Supreme Court ruled that there is a First Amendment right for journalists and the public to attend court hearings.

The court found that a courtroom could only be closed under extraordinary circumstances, and there was no other way to preserve the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The court noted that the fair-trial right can be preserved when jurors are selected, screening out those who have become biased because of media coverage.

The Supreme Court has also frowned on efforts to stop reporters from publishing stories on newsworthy subjects.

“Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity,” the Supreme Court ruled in its 1971 New York Times vs. United States decision.

A hearing on the request has been scheduled for June 14.





New Jersey bill would make mug shots public records

9 05 2013

Just as Utah officials are looking for ways to restrict access to mug shots, New Jersey is going in the opposite direction.

The Daily Record of Parsippany, N.J., reports that a bill is moving through the Garden State’s legislature classifying booking photos as public records. The state’s open-records laws were ambiguous on the point, with some counties denying access and others granting it.

“Releasing pictures of defendants puts a face with a name,” the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Ronald S. Dancer, R-Ocean County, told the paper. “These pictures serve important public purposes, including protecting the transparency and integrity of our legal process for victims and offenders, helping to identify criminals on the run and keeping law-abiding citizens informed about the crimes and potential criminals in their communities.”

Dancer’s bill would require mug shots to be released to the public within 24 hours of an arrest when practical.

Local prosecutors had read state law as meaning they could withhold mug shots. They also argued that releasing the photos could possibly taint the jury pool.

But the bill’s supporters say there is no evidence that releasing the photos would sway potential jurors.

“If the prosecutors were right, then we should never release arrest information, because that will taint the jury pool, too,” Walter Luers, an open-government attorney, told the Daily Record. “The fact is any coverage any time the information gets out will taint the jury pool.”

Contrast that to Utah, where several jailers are making it more difficult to download — or even view — mug shots in an attempt to keep them away from mug-shot websites that purportedly charge people to remove the images.

Salt Lake County, for example, no longer posts mug shots online, requiring people to file a request under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act to get copies. And even that isn’t a guarantee, as the owner of bustedmugshots.com learned.

In that case, the county declared that the mug shots couldn’t be released because that would violate copyright laws.

This year, the Legislature passed — at Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder’s insistence — HB408, which requires people filing GRAMA requests for mug shots to sign a sworn statement that they won’t post the pictures on websites that charge to remove them.

The New Jersey bill is headed to committee.





Not all entities are posting on Utah’s Transparency website

3 05 2013

Since 2009, Utahns have been able to log on to a state website and see how much public employees are paid, as well as what agencies and governments were spending.

The goal behind the Transparent Utah website was to make government more, well, transparent. And in some ways it helps. Entities with budgets in excess of $1 million are required to post their books on the site.

But, as was discussed during Tuesday’s Transparency Advisory Board meeting, and heavy users of the site know, not everyone is doing that.

For example, out of 272 counties, municipalities and service districts that were supposed to start reporting their payroll in 2011, 11 have failed to do so. Out of 146 charter schools, colleges and universities, school districts and transit districts, eight have not provided payroll data.

Overall, nearly a third of the entities required to report did not submit 2012 salary data.

Darrell Swensen, the state’s transparency coordinator, said he didn’t think it was malice driving the lack of response. He said it was a matter of priorities for some entities. In other cases, the job passed from one person to another, the responsibility for posting the data eventually forgotten.

But the law does not provide any penalties for agencies that don’t get their payroll records online within the first quarter of a new fiscal year. Right now, the only enforcement mechanism is Swensen encouraging them to post, and providing a template to help them do it.

To really punish the delinquent entities would require revising the law, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who drafted the law and chairs the transparency advisory board, said that is not likely to happen.

“I would rather take the passive approach,” Niederhauser said.

John Reidhead, the board’s vice chairman, suggested one way to bring the delinquents to heel is to have a statement put in their annual audit reports that they were not posting the information.

Another option, floated by Robert Woolley, with the state’s Department of Technology Service, was to create a “wall of shame” on the state site, highlighting which agencies are not turning in their data. He envisioned a box on the site’s homepage, showing the logo and the name of the offending entities.

The only drawback to that is that only site users will see who’s listed as delinquent, and the transparency site is not exactly a hub of Internet activity. This idea is sort of akin to pillorying someone in a private courtyard.

But to help shine the spotlight on the problem, here is a list of some of the entities that should be posting on the transparency site, but are falling behind, and fiscal year last posted online.

Box Elder County (2011)

Coalville (no data)

Duchesne (2011)

Fairview (2011)

Green River (2011)

Helper (2011)

Holladay (2011)

Kamas (2011)

Kanab (2011)

La Verkin (2011)

Lindon (2011)

Monticello Academy (no data uploaded)

Payson (2011)

Panguitch (2011)

Provo School District (2010)

South Ogden (2011)





Utah gets B+ for transparency, but can still do better

26 04 2013

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund ranked Utah ninth in the nation for transparency on financial matters.

The group gave Utah a grade of B+ for its transparency website. It noted that Utah’s site provides “checkbook” level information on what government entities are spending, and cited how the data encouraged the state to cut back on buying bottled water to save money.

The state did receive some low marks for not having searchable and downloadable formats for economic-development tax credits, or information to hold the companies receiving the tax breaks accountable.

 





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.

 





Push to make birth dates secret stopped as Utah House Bill 370 goes to interim study

5 03 2013

In Utah, when both the state Republican and Democratic parties line up against a bill, it’s a bad omen for the sponsor.

That’s what happened with Rep. Brian Greene’s attempt to make birth dates private records under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). Greene, a Pleasant Grove Republican, claimed the bill was needed to protect Utahns from identity theft and elder abuse.

His bill, HB370, was supposed to make its second appearance before the House Political Subdivisions Committee Wednesday, but the bill has been sent to interim study.

Greene first presented the bill to the committee Monday, arguing that a birth date was one of the key pieces of information that identity thieves need — the others being name and Social Security number  — and the state shouldn’t be handing it out to anyone who buys voter rolls or looks at court records.

“It just seems — I don’t know if ironic is the right word — but troubling when we have our own state attorney general’s office and other state agencies saying protect that birth-date information, that we don’t have a policy in the state making that information private,” Greene said. “We disclose that information to anyone who is willing to pay for it.”

But Matt Lyon, the Utah Democratic Party’s executive director, and Jeff Peterson, deputy victory director of the Utah GOP, said the two parties opposed the bill. The parties use the information to identify voters and help them find where to vote and tell them which candidates are on the ballot.

Lyon said birth dates can help parties target younger voters and improve voter turnout overall, with no risk of someone’s identity being stolen.

“There is no recorded case of identity fraud occurring … by someone pulling information off the voting records,” Lyon said.

They also submitted a letter signed by GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis urging the committee to kill the bill.

They were not the only ones aruging the bill would do more harm than good.

Mike Bailey, with Lexis-Nexus, said that having access to birth dates in records allows his clients to identify people and prevent fraud, especially when dealing with two people who have the same name.

Mike Sontag, with Bear River Mutual insurance, said the insurance industry needs to be able to see a list of accidents by age group so it can better assess whether a young driver is a greater risk than others.

And Jacey Skinner, director of the Utah Sentencing Commission, said the bill would make it harder for people to identify convicted criminals who may share the same name as an innocent person. The birth date eliminates that confusion, Skinner said.

While the Attorney General’s identity theft website said to be wary of telemarketers trying to get personal information, including birth dates, it does not list public records as a source identity thieves turn to. Instead, identity thieves will use phishing scams to lure people into providing sensitive information, steal mail or go Dumpster diving to find papers with the information they seek.

And, as an identity-theft victim, I know for a fact that this bill would do absolutely nothing to stop identity theft.

When I was attending Brigham Young University years ago, I got a call asking me to come down to the Provo Police Department about a stolen check. After going through handwriting analysis, I was cleared of being a thief and informed that I was a victim of an identity thief. Someone had taken a check from a student on campus and cashed it at a local bank in my name, using a student ID card with my name and student number (which happened to be my Social Security number).

Then, I got a statement from a credit union about “my” account, and notices that “I” was writing bad checks all over Utah Valley. The police, in hopes of catching the thief, decided to keep my name on BYU’s blacklist, the rouge’s gallery of people whose checks have bounced and are not to be cashed on campus.

That move essentially froze me out of my own account, at a time when I was trying to court a young lady. Meanwhile, the police had to write letters  to the collection agencies to let them know I wasn’t the one writing the rubber checks, which totalled more than $5,000.

Eventually, the thieves turned themselves in, and when they came to me to apologize, I asked them how they did it. They told me they picked my name and student number at random from a class roll. (Ironically, the class in question was “Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ.”) With that, they were able to get the university to make a new student ID, with one of their pictures and my name on it.
They didn’t have my birth date, and they didn’t file a public records request. Greene’s bill wouldn’t have helped me, nor any other identity-theft victim. The thieves are just not stupid enough to make a records request. Instead, the law would close off access to information that helps journalists and the public distinguish between two people who share a common name.

Oh, and that young lady I was trying to date during that episode? We’re celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary this year.