Governor wants more input, discussion before changing government records act

Mar 8 2011 - 12:16am

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A controversial bill that would change access to government records was one of the reasons the governor met with legislators Monday, lawmakers say.

House Bill 477, sponsored by Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, and Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, was recalled by the Senate. An amendment was added changing the implementation date to July 1, instead of as soon as the governor signs it.

The governor will call a special session to have lawmakers and the public discuss the Government Records Access Management Act before the changes become law.

Gov. Gary Herbert did not have a public position concerning the new GRAMA law as of Monday afternoon, Ally Isom, chief deputy of staff with the governor's office, wrote in an e-mail sent after his meetings.

"The Governor understands this is a highly charged issue with strong emotions on both sides," Isom wrote. "He is carefully considering this issue and weighing all options."

Almost 48 hours after it was first heard in committee Wednesday, HB477 was passed Friday by the Senate. It exempts the legislative branch from GRAMA and defines private communications as e-mails, text messaging and voice mails.

The bill would raise fees for requests that are deemed "voluminous" and allow state agencies more time before handing over requested public documents.

Sen. Michael Waddoups said he met with Herbert, who is "very concerned" about how fast the bill went through the Legislature.

Waddoups said lawmakers will meet before July 1 with those who have concerns about the bill to discuss any changes, if they are necessary.

House Speaker Rep. Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, said the bill went through the proper process.

Lawmakers are "listening to our constituents," and that is why the bill is being recalled, not because of any impropriety on the part of legislators, Lockhart said.

"We've had some other legislation move much more quickly and have received no complaints," she said.

Lockhart also said, "I am not going to apologize for the House's process. This is the way we do business."

As to complaints from the public and other legislators that there was little time to read and understand HB477 after it appeared, Lockhart said, "The lobbyists who represent the media are some of the most highly paid and the most experienced here during the session."

Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, said the governor met with Democrats before he met with the House Republican caucus to discuss the concerns about HB477 they have heard from constituents.

A rally is being held at noon today at the Utah Capitol.

Former House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Ogden, helped write the original GRAMA bill 20 years ago.

He said Monday he was "disappointed in the process" this time around because, "I don't think you get good legislation by handling legislation this way."

However, he said GRAMA does need changes.

"It's been a little over 20 years since we passed it, and at the time we passed the bill, legislators didn't have cell phones and laptops and instant messages and all the things that go with them. So the bill needs to be updated."

For example, he opposes striking the intent language that HB477 takes out of the bill, taking away the presumption that records should be open.

Majority Assistant Whip Rep. Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland, said the governor and lawmakers agreed to work together to bring the public in to get input.

Since GRAMA was implemented, technology has changed how people communicate, she said.

"Plus, no one had any idea that communication would boom the way it has," Menlove said.

She said legislators want to protect private communications between themselves and their constituents.

"I get e-mails from constituents who pour their heart out. They talk about things they assume will stay private. They don't realize that e-mail is a government record and can be discovered through GRAMA," Menlove said.

Stephens said he thinks it is a good idea to have a task force to review GRAMA.

Standard-Examiner reporter Charles Trentelman contributed to this article.

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