I believe the best solution to the GRAMA controversy is to not go backward in time, but forward. Utah should become the most transparent state in the nation, not the least. Instead of merely fiddling with GRAMA we should take public records and information to the next level.
Utah needs an independent state agency to maintain and improve this great public resource--our records. Such an agency would be charged with taking the constant flow of records and information from all public sources, filter out what is private, and make the rest as useful and accessible as possible.
For now, let's call this agency the "Public Retrieval Agency for Information and Records"--or PRAIR.
We shouldn't have to make GRAMA requests just to get piecemeal the information that is already ours. If to enter Zion National Park, we had to submit an application, wait 10 days, pay several hundred dollars and then only get to see Weeping Rock--we would all be up in arms. Yet, this is analogous to many of our public records and information. Some legislators, to justify limiting access, have decried "fishing" expeditions in public records--but how better to catch the bottom feeders!
This information is ours. It's public property just like Zion, the Great Salt Lake, I-15 or the University of Utah. And it may be more critical to our democracy than any other public resource.
Beautiful as it is, were we to drop a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb on Zion, Utah's democratic institutions would pretty much go on just as they do now--except of course for Springdale, Hurricane and several other southwestern Utah cities. But were we to close access to all public records, our democracy would rot and decay.
Yet those other public resources we regularly maintain, improve and make easily accessible at great public expense. We have agencies--school districts, UDOT, etc.--specifically dedicated to each resource--except the resource of public information and records.
Clearly, GRAMA has had its limitations. It can at times place costly burdens on the finite resources of small government entities, like small towns, or on entities that at times are extremely busy, like the Legislature in session. This is where the Public Retrieval Agency for Information and Records, or PRAIR, would come in--having the resources and special expertise of making public records truly and constantly public.
Another problem with GRAMA is that the end product of retrieving, sorting, redacting, and copying government records--sometimes at great public expense--becomes private, owned only by its requestor. Unless that end product is shared, GRAMA does not necessarily benefit the public at large.
The PRAIR could take information gathered from all public GRAMA requests and make it easily available to all.
I recently tried to list all the 2011 votes of a single legislator. I quickly gave up, as it would have taken several hours. Sure, those votes are public record but not usefully organized public information--perhaps purposely so. Yet, voting records are some of democracy's most vital information.
The PRAIR could organize information to be more useful to all.
This is the great information age. It is now practical to make just about any public record easily accessible in a useful format for us all. Surely, this will be the wave of the future--so why not now? What better way to be wise stewards over this vast public resource?
This information age has the potential to loosen the grip of powerful people and groups over government, more than any other time in history. More even, than that great age of Washington, Jefferson and Madison. In a democracy, information and power should be dispersed as widely as is practical. We should spend more money to make more of our records more public--not less.
Every great problem presents a great opportunity. This struggle over the GRAMA law is ours. Let's not waste it.
Ladd Brubaker is a University of Utah journalism student. He is a copy editor and reporter for the Sanpete Messenger, and he was a 2011 legislative intern for The Salt Lake Tribune. He has also been a reporter for the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin. He lives in Magna, Utah.