Tuesday, June 21, 2011

GRAMA Sub-Committee Commentary

by Michael Orton
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Salt Lake City --

During the 45 days that the Utah legislature met in its normal session this year, a legal caldera erupted when lawmakers rushed through revisions to Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act, known simply as GRAMA. It was widely believed by the public and by media interests that lawmakers were attempting to exempt their instant messages, text messages and e-mails from public access and accountability. Due to journalistic diligence and an immediate public outcry amplified by social media, HB477 was subsequently repealed earlier in the year, but only after the regular lawmaking session had adjourned and with significant procedural juggling between the executive and legislative branches of Utah's state government.

What followed was an agreement by all parties to meet during the legislative interim to study the aspects of GRAMA that needed to be updated, since some communications technologies hadn't been anticipated ten years prior when the first GRAMA rules were adopted and enrolled. The "Working Group," consisting of Utah's media interests, lobbyists such as the state's Tea Party and media coalitions, technology experts and public interest organizations, all joined with Utah's senators and representatives to determine necessary and appropriate recommendations.

On Thursday, June 16, 2011, the Working Group's sub-committee responsible for drafting the legal text met to discuss and finalize new statutory recommendations. Those attending were Jeff Hunt, an attorney representing media interests and who was responsible for the original statute; Laura Lockhart, assistant attorney general for the State of Utah; Michael Wilkins, a former Justice of the state's supreme court; State Senator Stuart Adams (r) Davis County; and State Senator Curt Bramble (r) Utah County, who was the original bill's sponsor. Observing the proceedings were archivists, reporters and public interest group representatives.

After the session, which met for more than two and a half hours, the following comments were made by Sherilyn Bennion of the League of Women Voters and Jeff Salt, an activist with Great Salt Lake Keepers (see video).

 FLASH VIDEO - Commentary on Utah's GRAMA Statutory Sub-Committee - June 16
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Ms. Bennion expressed her concern that the legislators would still attempt to exempt correspondence from being subject to retention and revue. Mr. Salt indicated that while emerging technologies were being adopted that would allow for printing and archiving of mobile phone text messages, the lawmakers needed to consider the public's right to know and to understand how elected officials were conducting the public's business. Lawmakers continued to express concerns about constituent privacy, a provision which was also included in the ten-year-old statute. At issue during the public outcry when HB477 was rushed through the process last spring was communications with lobbyists who were attempting to privately influence legislation and appropriations. During the 2011 session, the Salt Lake Tribune uncovered lawmakers' ability to communicate with lobbyists using PIN identities which do not go through computer server hubs and therefore are not able to be recorded, requested or recovered. PIN addressing is available with Blackberry mobile phones, many of which are seen in use on the chamber floors.

The entire Working Group will meet tomorrow morning at 9am, June 22, 2011 in the Senate Rules Room of the Utah capitol and will discuss and adopt final recommendations to forward to the entire legislature.