On Tuesday -- with the introduction of the aptly named SB 177 -- Sen. Curt Bramble of Provo eased the intense controversy that surrounded last year's attack on Utah's open records law known as GRAMA and moved toward a positive conclusion.
The bill came out of committee on a unanimous vote of members, and with the firm endorsement of the Utah Media Coalition, which had been closely consulted on changes. The measure now moves to the full Senate, where passage is expected.
Both houses of the Utah Legislature in 2011, heeding bad advice from their attorneys and shunning collaboration and input from public stakeholders, passed the now notorious HB 477 -- amendments to the Government Records Access and Management Act. The bill undercut the principle of transparency in government, and Utahns were incensed. Gov. Gary Herbert should have vetoed it on principle, but he failed to recognize rising public anger and signed it into law.
There are times when politicians need their chains yanked by the people, and this was one of those. Ordinary Utahns everywhere made it clear that they wanted broad access to all government records, not a nibbling away of openness. They reacted to HB 477 with a displeasure so intense that the law was almost immediately repealed -- a highly unusual event in the annals of Utah lawmaking.
Chastened, the governor and legislature formed what came to be called the "GRAMA working group" -- a blue-ribbon panel led by former senator Lane Beattie -- to talk about potential improvements in light of emerging technologies and such. Truth be told, this panel provided some political cover for legislators stung by public reaction and who expected to come out of the process with something not far from the original bill. Thanks to Beattie's leadership, and Bramble's behind-the-scenes negotiating, what emerged was a consensus, not another railroad job.
In the end, key amendments to GRAMA introduced Tuesday in SB 177 were not developed in a grand committee. They were developed the old-fashioned way, with a few legislators -- primarily Bramble -- engaging in respectful dialogue with stakeholders on specific statutory language.
From the beginning of the GRAMA controversy, Bramble and neighboring senator John Valentine of Orem stood behind openness. They promised to ride out the tsunami of acrimony between lawmakers and the public, and then come back and get it right after things cooled down.
We have now seen the result, and it's a good one. Had Bramble's advice prevailed during the 2011 session -- that is, consult with the press and public, don't steamroll them -- the whole HB 477 mess would have been avoided.
Bramble's SB 177 clears up, once and for all, the single most significant ambiguity in GRAMA. Now there is no mistaking the principle that the public interest prevails when disclosure is balanced against privacy interests. If the public interest is equal in weight to privacy in a disputed record, the tie goes to openness and the record must be released. This was the standard set by the Utah Supreme Court in a case involving sexual harassment in Salt Lake County government.
In addition, Bramble's bill calls for a number of other positive changes. Among other things, SB 177:
• Creates a government records ombudsman whose job is to assist both those requesting records and those in government who are responding to requests.
• Requires the state to create an online training course, and require records officers in cities and other political subdivisions to certify annually so that records are not inappropriately withheld from the public.
• Raises the standard for obtaining records that might endanger life or compromise a police investigation. A requester of a disputed document must show by a "clear and convincing" standard that the public interest outweighs the need to protect sensitive information.
• Clarifies that personal notes by government employees are not "records" under GRAMA when created "in a capacity other than the employee's or officer's governmental capacity; or that is unrelated to the conduct of the public's business."
Hindsight is always 20/20, and the Utah Legislature now has clearer vision. In that sense, the GRAMA controversy can be seen as a positive. Lawmakers now know how much the public cares about open government.
Bramble has been the primary mover on the Senate side, and SB 177 is his bill. But House Speaker Becky Lockhart has also made it clear in strongly worded public statements that changes to GRAMA would not be undertaken unilaterally but only with the collaboration and buy-in of all concerned. We expect that her leadership on this point will move the House to approve.
So what started as a political disaster in 2011 has been transformed into something of value for all Utahns, assuming that legislators can refrain from making precipitous changes in coming days.
But make no mistake: Ongoing public vigilance is necessary to preserve open government. Drop your guard for a minute and you can be assured that opportunists in elected office will soon seek to erode it.
To help lawmakers and the public keep their eyes open, the Utah Media Coalition -- a group of newspapers and other watchdogs -- has created "GRAMA Watch," an ongoing analysis of emerging bills that makes "light bulb" ratings of bills based on whether they shine light on government or allow it to operate in the dark. The ratings appear periodically on this page.
Legislators are paying attention. Nobody wants to be a dim bulb after HB 477, especially in an election year. Interestingly, 2012 has seen an unusual number of bills that keep the light shining.
Let's hope this becomes a habit.