Utah’s GRAMA can be a blessing and a curse for news agencies

Aug 3 2013 - 12:18am

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Politicians and bureaucrats often tout from on high their moves to provide more transparency in government, but at the street level things remain pretty opaque.

There are some laudable efforts to get people closer to government records in Utah, such as the state website on the topic at http://www.utah.gov/open/. In reality, individuals can face a rat's warren of bureaucracy and minutiae in trying to view or obtain copies of public records. News organizations, with greater resources than the average citizen, sometimes find the going just as murky.

In recent weeks the Standard-Examiner has been thwarted in numerous attempts to obtain records and data held by local or state agencies. For example, we're still waiting for the Willard mayor to respond to our appeal of the police chief's denial of our request to see a police report in a homicide case. We asked for the report in June and my calendar says it's already August.

We asked for three numbers from the state Driver License Division and were told that the agency would have to do computer programming to generate the numbers. In other words, the agency could do a little work to generate three numbers, but chooses not to do so. The law does not compel the agency to provide the information.

We also wanted access to state courts' active arrest warrants. We got nowhere. The courts have databases of the information but are unwilling to run any reports to generate data feeds for public review on police department or news websites.

Felony arrest warrants assist police in tracking down fugitives and criminal suspects, but because warrants include some personally identifying information, state law allows the courts to keep the public from seeing those warrants.

Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act is a blessing and a curse. It does provide a distinct process through which to pursue a request and potential multiple appeals through a labyrinth, at least a glimmer of hope for openness. But in practice, agencies have innumerable loopholes with which to delay, deny and wear down even committed requestors, especially those without the wherewithal to engage legal services to keep fighting at the end of standard appeals.

The Legislature a few years ago gutted GRAMA, the state records law, but grudgingly restored the original after an unprecedented public outcry. Even so, the pristine version is still such a stacked deck in favor of government secrecy, it's a wonder lawmakers even felt that emasculating the law in total was worth the effort.

The forecast is cloudy. There's little sunshine in sight.

Mark Shenefelt is managing editor. He can be reached at 801-625-4224 or mshenefelt@ standard.net .

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