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Utah Legislature seals elected officials’ work calendars

Vote comes the same day a judge ruled Attorney General Sean Reyes’ calendar should be released

By McKenzie Romero - Utah News Dispatch | Feb 28, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, is seen as the doors to the House Chamber are closed at the start of the first day of the legislative at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

The Utah Legislature passed a bill Tuesday night that would make clear the work calendars of public and elected officials are exempt from Utah's open records laws, restricting the press and public from seeing them.

The House voted 52-22  to pass SB240  after lawmakers suspended the rules to allow the bill to bypass a House legislative hearing that was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon -- an action that came on the same day a judge sided with KSL TV journalists and ruled Attorney General Sean Reyes' calendar should be released.

The bill now goes to Gov. Spencer Cox. It was approved with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate, meaning it will take effect immediately if the governor signs it.

The bill's sponsor argued calendars have never been considered a public record, and under his bill, explicitly won't be.

Discussion ahead of the vote accused Utah journalists of seeking lawmakers' calendar records for the sole purpose of maligning them.

"The media wants to exploit us. We do not have an honest journalism system with a few exceptions in this state," Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said on the House floor Tuesday night.

"The way we get a better government and a transparent government, Mr. Speaker, is by connecting with our constituents, by meeting with them, by talking with them, by showing them the things that they're asking for, not by the media running a story to slam us and slander us," she continued, saying she is happy to show her calendar to constituents who ask her.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, the bill's House sponsor, warned lawmakers that if their calendars were released, they would reveal "exactly where you're going to be."

"Our current law, if daily calendars are included, does not exempt future calendaring. That's a pretty big security concern," Brammer said.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City -- who is also running as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate challenging Utah Gov. Spencer Cox -- spoke against the bill, arguing that hiding lawmakers' activity on the job is not transparent and sows mistrust for constituents wanting to know what their elected representatives are doing.

"I can't imagine what good reason exists for us not being willing to disclose the records of our daily activities as legislators, not our personal records, our records of our activities as legislators," King said. "Let's be open handed with the people that we serve."

The call for public officials' calendars

Debate over whether calendars tracking elected officials' time on the job surfaced after the State Records Committee ruled last May in favor of KSL TV journalists that Attorney General Sean Reyes is required to release his calendar after reporters requested it under Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA.

But Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, sponsor of SB240, told the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 20 that calendars are excluded from GRAMA, which his bill only sought to clarify. He called the State Records Committee ruling "in contradiction" to the law.

"So for those who believe that we're somehow changing the law, I would proffer to the committee that this is clarifying what the long standing interpretation and practice of the law has been," Bramble said.

The TV station, which has been pursuing Reyes' calendar since November 2022 to verify how much time he has been spending on the job, argued its case in court Monday.

Third District Judge Patrick Corum ruled that because several of Reyes' staffers see and change his schedule as part of their jobs, it is not a personal calendar, KSL TV reported.

"There's half a dozen people that have deep, very, very extensive details of this calendar, making it not for personal use," Corum said.

A spokesman with the Utah Attorney General's Office told KSL TV the office does not agree with the decision and intends to appeal.

The bill does not impact the judge's ruling.

Compensation for GRAMA fights

Bramble's bill also includes a provision that is friendly to open records efforts, saying that if a public agency denies a GRAMA request and the requester ultimately prevails in court, the state may be on the hook for legal fees.

Ahead of the committee's vote on last week, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, the committee's chair, took a moment to voice a personal opinion on what he called routine denials by state agencies responding to records requests, even to someone in his position as an attorney and a state senator.

"The whole idea of GRAMA is that records should be presumed to be publicly available, and they treat them, even to me, they treat them just the opposite. When I send a GRAMA request to a state agency ... I know now there's like a 99% chance that they'll deny it. And even when you go to the Records Commission, and the Records Commission agrees with my client and me, they still deny it," Weiler said. "I'm ashamed that I live in a state that treats its citizens that way."

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.

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