Friday, March 4, 2011

Utah wants to destroy open government?

This past week has been a bad one for open and transparent government in Utah.

On Tuesday, Utah House Rep. John Dougall, a man who I respected by virtue of his limited government stance, introduced HB477, revisions to the Government Records Access Management Act, that makes many changes to Utah's open records laws, nearly all of them bad.

The changes that are getting the most headlines are ones that exempt electronic communications from government officials from public scrutiny. Right now, e-mails, voice mails, text messages, etc... are presumed open to the public unless they contain material that allows them to be exempted from an open records request. This is a good thing. Lawmakers like Rep. Hendrickson have been quoted in the press, however, as saying that allowing all e-mails to be public allows devils like THE MEDIA to go on "fishing expeditions" to try and dig up dirt on lawmakers.

Well...NO KIDDING. That's exactly one of the reasons it's there for, Rep. Hendrickson, to allow the media to be the public watchdog and make sure you and your cronies are keeping your hands clean.

I'm pretty outraged by this, but the best I can do is contact my representatives. I am still registered and maintain my vote in Logan, despite temporary dwelling in West Valley, so I contacted Rep. David Butterfield and Sen. Lyle Hillyard. Rep. Butterfield already voted in favor of passing HB477 through the house, and Sen. Hillyard is the Senate sponsor for the bill, so I never really had much hope of changing minds. Let me note that I respect both of these men and they're good men, but they're dead wrong on this issue.

E-mail to Rep. Butterfield:
...I'd be interested to hear your line of thinking in voting in favor of Dougall's GRAMA changes bill. The people of Utah (myself included) are outraged by the House passing this bill, especially by the margin it passed. This bill was a major punch to the face of transparent government under the guise of "protecting the taxpayer." When I hear people like Rep. Hendrickson criticize media "fishing expeditions" I have to laugh, because the media's job is to be the watchdog of government. I'm really pretty disappointed, as a resident, in the House as a whole for voting for this. It's the most disrespectful piece of legislation I've seen...ever, especially the haste in which it was pushed through. It seemed very "Pelosi-esque." This isn't personal to you, I would be interested in hearing your rationale though...
As of 11:07 a.m. Friday, I'd received no response from him.

Now, with Sen. Hillyard, one of his concerns was that as a lawyer, he would have clients e-mailing him confidential, privileged information on his Utah Senate account. So with him, I sent him two e-mails: One to his law office address, and one to his Senate address.

E-mail to Sen. Hillyard (Law firm address):
Senator Hillyard:

If I were a client of your law firm. I would contact you at this e-mail address, I would assume that any clients of yours who were contacted you regarding law firm business would contact you at this e-mail address. Law firm business sent to this e-mail is not something that I, as a member of the public, can request by law.

E-mail to Sen. Hillyard (Senate address):
Senator Hillyard:

If I contact you at this e-mail address,, the communique should be presumed to be public business and, like it or not, constituents need to understand and respect that their e-mail to you as a public official can, may and likely will be made public at some point. I'm an individual who loves transparency and wants our conservative lawmakers to preserve open government. House Bill 477 is an absolute affront to open government and is a slap in the face to the people of the state of Utah. It is my understanding that you are the Senate sponsor of Rep. Dougall's HB477. I beg of you to reconsider and listen to the overwhelming negative feedback for this unneeded legislation. This legislation is not becoming of this state, is a major step backward and is flat out embarrassing. As a former member of the media and a current voting member of the public, I ask you and your colleagues to abandon this miscarriage of policy. 

Interestingly enough, Sen. Hillyard replied to me from his law firm address. This is something that HE is going to need to change. The burden is on the individual representative to distinguish which business should be handled by personal e-mail and which should be handled by government e-mail.

Here is Sen. Hillyard's response:
But my law office e-mail is public and easy (I hope for client's) to find.  Some people who know me don't know there is a difference and some think that when I am out of the office that my senate e-mail is the only way to contact me.  Our staff is tired of the threats from the media and we plan on working with them if they want after the bill is passed if there are changes to be made but let's do it without threats of going to court.  When staff shares with us the threats made by the  media attorneys of what they think the law means from the outdated language of GRAMA which was adopted well before the changes to the current electronic media, you will see a strong bi-partisan support for the bill.  It may be a good idea to have a delete/ forward button we could push for all the meaningless e-mails we get to a central place for all the media to read and then have a weekly test so they can prove they have now read all the material they are seeking. 

And my response back to him:
Senator Hillyard, 
Thanks for the response.
I understand where you are coming from, but I really think you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. I get the feeling you are looking at this from the perspective of worst case scenarios on your end, and as a result, are disregarding the great harm to the public that will be done with this legislation. 
Every single one of you up there are public servants. The media is the watchdog for the public. To hear you say that "our staff is tired of the threats from the media" is frustrating, because our freedom, our transparency, our efficacy as a government requires the media to be vigorous and aggressive so they can successfully out any corruption that may exist. And let's be honest, corruption has existed in most levels of government throughout our history.  
Returning to your law firm e-mail argument, the burden is on you to let your law clients know the appropriate way to contact you for law firm-related issues. If you receive a law firm message on your senate e-mail, reply and tell them the correct place to send the message, and even explain why if you have to. This argument is a pretty weak-kneed excuse to destroy one of the hallmarks of Utah's open government laws.  
At the very least, Senator, won't you consider circling the bill and bringing in some people to consult on it to fix some of the areas that there is great concern from the media? Maybe I'll put it this way: If you and staff are tired of the "threats" coming from media now, what do you think is going to happen when this law passes? National freedom of the press groups and attorneys will descend on Utah and protest and create even more problems. In addition, Utah will stand as the ONLY state in the country that statutorily and automatically exempts the electronic communications of elected officials from public scrutiny.  
Utah is better than this. The public demands better than this. And bipartisan support from 75 men and women in the House and 29 men and women in the Senate is meaningless when the core constituencies affected by the bill are uniformly, and loudly, opposed to what you're doing.
Finally, do you realize how bad this looks that the bill text was released Tuesday, it was heard in committee Wednesday, voted on Thursday and brought to the Senate today? Last time I saw so much secrecy and haste in moving a bill through a legislative body was Obama's healthcare bill. Add this to the news reports of Governor Herbert giving conflicting information about his level of involvement with this bill and when he found out about it, and this whole thing stinks to high heaven.
You all are wrong on this, Senator, with all do respect. There's a chance to make it right. What can we do to help you and your colleagues see the light before it's too late? I am not mincing words when I say this is the biggest slap in the face to government transparency I've seen in Utah since I started paying attention.

So there you go...First off, thanks to Sen. Hillyard for at least responding. I'm being told by others that they're not having so much luck. I just posted these because I figure if the government doesn't want to be transparent, I will be.

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