GRAMA got run over by a reindeer

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Or did she? You’d certainly think so if you saw the news headlines this weekend, but not everyone thinks that GRAMA has met her demise. In fact, you might say that reports of her death have been greatly exaggerated.

When the GRAMA law was passed some 20 years ago, written communication directly related to the elected official’s official duties was really the only thing available. Telephone calls and personal conversations were exempted. Over the years, the expansion of what is GRAMA-able has been voluminous. Now, it includes texting (which is what I personally do more often then an actual phone call), chatting, video conferencing, etc. It also has been expanded to include personal emails if they “might” pertain to government work – potentially including personal grocery lists, and otherwise personal conversations. Additionally, because of the broadness of the application, personal information sent by a constituent can also become public knowledge. I’m new enough that this has not happened to me, but other legislators have had personal correspondence that has included tax returns, details of family members experiences with drug courts, DCFS, or even details of government waste, fraud and abuse within the very departments where they work. The argument that “that’s already protected” doesn’t fly. Those more personal types of conversations are only protected until someone decides it’s pertinent, then it’s made available via GRAMA, bless her heart.

Utah has one of the most open and transparent legislatures in the country. Our meetings remain open and recorded. Our votes are open. Our access is open. Our work emails are available for scrutiny. Our tweets are archived by the Library of Congress (and so are yours, btw) and FB probably is too. With all due respect to my friends and colleagues (or former colleagues, since they probably don’t want to claim me anymore), this is not the great big boogeyman that you’re reading about in the paper. Or seeing on TV.

I’ll give you some examples. GRAMA has been expanded to the point that it can cause government to grind to a a halt. I’ll give you a couple of examples: West Valley City had to deal with a request for ALL land-use decisions over the past 30 years. It took one person 3 months, full-time, involved other staff to review and cost the city $30,000. Another city had a request for the entire parking enforcement database since 2000 – more than a million lines of data. Alta spent six YEARS fulfilling one request for every public document – 250,000 of the them – at a cost of $37,000. Thank goodness has not yet had the situation like the one unfolding in Illinois, but it does illustrate the broad reach of our current laws. An AP reporter in that state filed a GRAMA request for detailed information on all gun owners (leaving, of course, a de facto list of all non-gun-owners). The state police said no, the AG said yes and now it looks like a court will decide. GRAMA is important, but it was never intended to give carte blanche access to everything,

Again, Utah’s meetings are open, official communications in traditionally recognized written format are still available via GRAMA requests. The passage of HB 477 doesn’t end GRAMA and it surely doesn’t end the openness and transparency of the Utah legislature. I believe we are the best in the nation, with live online access, recordings that live forever, transparent.utah.gov, the elections office database with clear financial disclosures and then of course those of us who use social media tools…..Take a deep breath. GRAMA is alive and kickin’.

*Update: Because I actually do believe in openness and transparency, here goes: I must admit to voter’s remorse on HB 477, not because of the content, but because of the process. I will be supporting a vote to recall this bill, change the implementation date and have a task force to look at this issue. In fact, I’ve volunteered to be on the task force, but as a freshman, I do not know if I’ll be chosen. I absolutely support openness and transparency AND the ability for some conversations to remain private. Trying to make sure we have the right balance is one big reason I want to have more time for public input.

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42 Responses to “GRAMA got run over by a reindeer”

  1. Bob Aagard Says:

    I love how you cite the exact same examples of GRAMA “abuse” that every other supporter has. It’s like you have a list of talking points or something.

    Why shouldn’t text messages be made public? If you are texting about the public’s business, it should be public. We’ll be the only state in the union where text messages on PUBLIC (TAXPAYER OWNED) cell phones are not public

    Also, if your personal shopping list is being made public, it’s because you are using your PUBLIC cell phone for PRIVATE matters.

    Also, the fees involved make it impossible for the general public to keep tabs on the inner workings of their government.

    The way this was rammed through makes me think the Legislature is trying to hide something. What are you trying to hide, Holly?

  2. Rich Stucky Says:

    Holly,

    This should not have been proposed and passed in three days at the end of the legislative session.

    Legislation of this importance to public business should have been presented early, prior to the beginning of the session to allow the public ample opportunity to consider the changes and offer suggestions.

    I hope the Governor vetoes the bill and gives us a chance to consider the implications and provide input for next year.

  3. hollyonthehill Says:

    Bob, you know me better than to accuse me of hiding anything. My life is an open book.
    So are you saying as long as I use my personal cell phone, I’m ok? Cause that’s what I do. Or use my personal iPad, which automatically forwards notes to my personal email account that goes to my personal cell phone.
    However, the courts have not agreed with you.

  4. Cathy Says:

    I was going to agree with Bob until his last line. I think you are very open with your votes/views etc. I think you were wrong on this but I would never accuse you of trying to hide something.

    Why the rush? Anything slid in and slammed through makes me wonder WHY? I do not like the way it was done. At all.

  5. BenJoe Says:

    So improve the system with GRAMA Requests, don’t destroy GRAMA.

  6. L. Hatch Says:

    This bill was about so much more than private texts. I am deeply disappointed in the process. GRAMA used to be about access to the workings of government that I identified as important to me. I would have liked to have had time to do more than a quick reading prior to sending you my first e-mail in opposition to HB 477.

    This legislation was enacted without giving sufficient opportunity for stakeholders (the public) to be part of the process. If the legislature could have taken “a deep breath” and included the public in the process prior to kickin’ GRAMA in the gut, it would have helped my perception of these actions.

  7. Doug Gibson Says:

    HB477 basically prices GRAMA requests too high for bloggers, citizens, small groups or smaller newspapers. HR477 removes the presumption from taxpayer-funded lawmakers to prove that public information is confidential. HR477 provides a vague fee schedule that would easily allow requests to be declined via the GRAMA price. HB477 allows the most powerful lobbyists or negotiators immediate access to legislators via e-communication that both know is now confidential. It’s an atrocious bill.

  8. Bonnie Fernandez Says:

    The process to pass this bill leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a 68 page bill with references to sections that are not contained within the bill. Public comment and sentiment were not given credence.

    What’s so wrong about sending GRAMA to Interim study so that all concerned interests have a chance to contribute to creating a concensus for sound public policy? Let’s fix the problems with personal privacy. Let’s create an easier path for obtaining records (not currently in the enrolled bill). Let’s align the fee and “cost” structures with reasonable and meaningful means for delivery of requested records (not currently in the enrolled bill).

    Holly, do you now truly believe that the majority of your constituents would have had you for in favor of this bill? If so, fine. If not, how will you vote if you have the opportunity to consider a veto override?

  9. Bronson Says:

    Holly,

    This stinks and you and every other sponsor of this bill knows it. Why else would you push this bill through in less then 48 hours without waiting for input from the public and to withstand the scrutiny of real debate? Your fellow politicians have admitted they wanted to do this in a non election year because they knew they where misbehaving. How quickly you forget who’s business you are on.

    Your post is mixed with half truths and hyperbole. This IS the great bogeyman you deny it to be. Under the changes proposed you are free to return to the days of Tammany hall indeed Boss Tweed would be proud of this bill. Want to talk about something unsavory well no problem hit me up on text and let’s make a deal after all the public won’t be able to find out this way. Worried about public requests? No issue there we can stall requesters INDEFINITELY now and charge them an unregulated fortune for even daring to ask.

    I wonder if you have even read the GRAMA laws in its current form? You cite personal information being revealed when in fact currently under GRAMA personal non public information is redacted.

    Let’s be real. This is about a $13MM payout of taxpayer dollars to a losing bidder of the I-15 core project in a time when we are laying off teachers due to budget shortfalls.

    Shame on you for putting you name on this Holly.

    Bronson

  10. Doug Gibson Says:

    This isn’t personal Holly, and I’m sorry if others have launched personal attacks on you. I see it as a threat to government openness and transparency and will fight it as long as there is a chance to stop it.

  11. Jason Williams Says:

    With all due respect, Holly (you know I’m a fan), you’re kind of missing the point.

    It’s the process behind this bill as much as the bill itself (and lets be honest, this is not a bill for the people).

    Legislators have reinforced every notion that leads to a disengaged public with HB477. Rammed through, secretive process, and an end result which justifies a public suspicion that legislators are more concerned about their own power than an open government.

    This bill was by, for, and of the legislators drafting it and those who voted for it. It had nothing to do with what was best for public confidence, or voter faith in the integrity of their public processes.

    Someone on twitter said “HollyontheHill the blogger would’ve opposed this, but Rep. Richardson, sadly, not so much.” Legislators would do better to remember that aspect of sausage making, and their responsibility to build confidence, not insulate themselves or their power.

    As elected officials, you accept being held to a higher standard, and “people sometimes email me at the wrong address” (Hillyard) or “we should have some privacy” (Dougall) excuses, while not entirely without merit, don’t justify the damage HB477 does to the public trust. The best evidence yet that this was a bad idea was the post by Rep. Dee, in which he makes a great case for updating GRAMA, but mentions not a single, justified defense of what HB477 actually does.

    Again, this one wasn’t “for the people,” and that’s what makes it such an ugly, reprehensible piece of legislation.

  12. JBT Says:

    I’m with your “friends” on this one Holly. Shame on you for voting for that abomination with regard to openness and transparency in government. Now Utah will get to deal with the negative national attention this bill has provoked already.

  13. MarkS Says:

    Some of the commenters here are guilty of hyperbole (Tammany Hall?!?!), but I think you’re also guilty of hypoberbole, making less of something than it really is.

    Sen. Dayton a couple of weeks ago chided a fellow senator who wanted attention given his bill, saying something like we have 1200 bills to consider, why should I give yours special treatment. This bill got very special treatment, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of those who favor deliberate consideration of our laws.

  14. David Says:

    Here is the problem. The bill didn’t stop with limited access to personal text or e-mail. It went on to add huge fees to out price people looking for information. It also allows government to out wait a story by taking more time to respond.

    And the supporters of this keep talking about fishing expeditions. Guess what, if you don’t have anything to hide, they’re not gonna find anything on you. Don’t do shady things.

    Out of 1200 or so bills, 10 had GRAMA requests. Doesn’t seem like a very heavy burden to me.

  15. Utah Legislature Watch: See what happens when voters pay attention? | What they didn't teach in law school Says:

    […] then Holly Richardson, the House’s newest Representative who had gone to bat for the bill on her blog before taking a second look at the issue: @HollyontheHillHolly Richardson Me RT @cboyack: Two […]

  16. Joel Campbell Says:

    Holly:
    As someone who has watched GRAMA evolve over 20 years, I really would like to correct some of your facts and would really like to meet and talk sometime.
    First, the privacy you speak of was highly valued when GRAMA was created and still highly valued in GRAMA.The examples you give of constituent information would be protected by the “clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy provision of GRAMA..” Your grocery list would be a non-record under GRAMA because it does not involve the public’s business. These issues were discussed 20 years ago and haven’t changed because of technology.
    Yes, text messages have changed the landscape, but the principle the GRAMA espouses still applies. It is not the form, but the content of the message that matters. The GRAMA committee used to joke whether it was written on a buffalo chip or a day planner and it involved the public’s business it was a record. This concept of content versus platform is a very solid and key principle.

    Fees. You speak about the large fees charged to get records. Guess what? The government can already charge for them. The fee waiver language in GRAMA is a permissive “may.” I was shocked when Rep. Dougall said that part of this was the leg research didn’t want to charge some requestors for their request. They felt they would be written up in the newspaper for charging. As a reporter, I received fee waivers when working in the public interest, but I also paid to get data from UDOT and other agencies. To say the media was unwilling to work on this issue is insulting to me. They never asked, but just assumed things.

    You are correct, Utah’s legislative infrastructure has good info and rules However, there was definitely was political pressure and secrecy surrounding this vote. One lawmaker told me he felt he could not oppose this bill unless he wanted to commit political suicide. That’s extortion.\
    Sincerely… hope we can talk.
    Joel Campbell

  17. Steve Javie Says:

    I expect this kind of post out of someone who didn’t actually get elected to serve by the people…

  18. JBT Says:

    Holly wrote: “Utah has one of the most open and transparent legislatures in the country”.

    Psst. . . . . do you think we should let her in on the “secret” that most of the people’s business such as deciding which bills to let out of committee is decided in closed Republican meetings with no public records? Maybe she knows that already, but it doesn’t fit nicely into her version of the truth.

  19. Daniel B. Says:

    Kudos for having the huevos to make a change, and to explain it.

  20. mark Says:

    If Utah wasn’t a one-party state, I don’t even think the legislature would have dared try something like this. The reality is that good old boys (and girls) in the GOP caucus realize that nobody is going to remove them and they pretty much do as they please. This law is just the latest example. The legislature has tried to ram down vouchers down our throats and other stuff that would never be approved by a majority of even conservative Utahns. Ain’t life grand?

  21. Chris Howard Says:

    Very, very disappointed.

    Republicans believe in transparency. We believe in openness in government. We believe in honesty. We don’t trust you anymore for voting for this. WHY DID YOU DO IT? You are smarter than this. This was a stupid vote. Shame on all of you. Act like Republicans and reverse course. We want open government; not excuses.

  22. Charles N. Davis Says:

    I admire your candor and your willingness to engage, Holly. I will not question motives nor impugn intent, as an “outsider” who studies FOI for a living. I am a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the former director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and FOI laws are my life’s work. I can say, based on years of study of comparative access law, that H.B. 477 represents a complete rollback of every principle that made GRAMA one of the state laws I always pointed to when asked “Which states have the best FOI laws?” Indeed, I can state with great confidence, having read the bill repeatedly, that it would place Utah in a class completely by itself, as the only state that would not begin with the legal presumption that all records are public unless expressly exempted (note that the entire legislative intent section of the GRAMA is removed by 477) and the only state in the country to completely exempt all text communications, regardless of content, from disclosure. This would create a completely legal situation in which a member of any public body could have text-based deliberation, pre-voting strategy sessions and even lobbyist-to-member communication during the meeting itself, with no one ever the wiser. And I will not clog the board with more, but I could go on…Access is not a partisan issue. It’s a self-governance issue. HB 477 places unparalleled obstacles between the government and the citizenry. I urge the good people of the great state of Utah to revisit this by creating a diverse commission of interest parties and come to a workable solution. Respectfully, and in the interest of good government,

    Charles N. Davis
    Associate Professor
    School of Journalism
    University of Missouri

  23. k. birkeland Says:

    While I respect the intentions to keep people’s personal tax issues or drug courts from the public, it seems to me that those who send and receive those types of messages need to be responsible in sending them to proper accounts. Why should we all be left blinded just to keep those in questionable situations – who can’t figure out where to admit their issues- “protected”. My clients know where to send things, if someone came across my shopping list I won’t be worried. The way this went forward created a conspiracy theory amongst every party. That is a Huge red flag to me that this is Not the right way to deal with GRAMA.

  24. Tony Says:

    Don’t use your personal electronics on government time. It’s as simple as that. I am not allowed to be on my personal phone at work, the phone I do use is openly available to my company — why should politicians be exempt from that? Where politics are concerned, NOTHING should remain private, that is where your logic is flawed.

  25. JBT Says:

    An ironic twist to the passage this bill is that our very own Chris Buttars distinguished himself as being the only Republican in the Senate to have the courage and principles to vote against it.

    Before you heap too much praise on him I should be noted that Gayle Ruzicka told him to vote against it because it would make it harder for the Eagle Forum folks to track the bills they support or oppose.

    Buttars is such a moron that he even ends up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. In this case it appears that Holly Richardson did the wrong thing for the wrong reason which raises the question, which is better?

  26. rmwarnick Says:

    “Utah has one of the most open and transparent legislatures in the country.”

    I’ll support that statement after the Republican caucus becomes open and transparent– that’s where most of the big decisions are made.

  27. Jennifer Says:

    Do we know anything about the people that are filing the $30k type requests??? It would be ironic if it were someone that would benefit from legislations like hb477

  28. Jennifer Says:

    …or if anyone was called on the carpet for things that were uncovered.

  29. Dwight Says:

    I can’t help but feel that the Utah government is trying to hide from the public. I think the $13 million payout on I-15 as a recent example of why GRAMA is good for the public. I’m not usually one to throw my religion into my politics, but I can’t help but feel a bit of irony of seeing a government mostly comprised of Mormons, passing a law that reads like it came out of a Gadianton Robber handbook. One of their practices was to control the government by being secretive. Sure there are still aspects of GRAMA that will work, but as Charles Davis points out, there are a lot of shadows the Utah government can now hide in. Surely you are not so naïve to think that those loopholes will not be abused?

  30. Maggie Olson Says:

    Holly,
    You cite interesting examples, and as someone has already pointed out, the same ones that every other legislator in favor of this bill has used. Yes, that $30,000, three month expense is excessive. However:
    In this electronic age, records can be kept in formats that are easy to retrieve and would not require that kind of cost of money or manpower. Perhaps THAT is where corrections should be made.
    Secondly, if you are using your personal electronic equipment on goverment (read that ‘taxpayer’) time, you should expect any transactions to be public and visable. Otherwise, take care of your personal business on personal time.
    Another point would be that if I work in private industry, and use company equipment and time, I KNOW that my emails, texts, tweets, computer keystrokes can all be tracked. Why should the legislature be any different?
    I agree with those who have said that one of the biggest red flags in this law is how quickly it went to the governor’s desk! Wow! Why then, does it take forever to get anything else taken care of ‘on the hill’? That in and of itself raises suspicion.
    Holly, how would you have reacted to this bill if you were still a private citizen? Would you have felt it appropriate in that scenario?
    Most citizens are not blessed with the ways, means, or time to attend all of those open meetings you talk about. We rely on the FOI to allow us to see what happens in those meetings.

  31. Carlos Says:

    For 6 years I carried two cell phones, one personal and one work. I was not allowed to use the company phone for personal business and It was not appropriate for me to discuss company business on my personal phone. As has been said before, everything you do on the company phone/computer/pager/copy machine is owned by your employer. There is no question about who is the employer of the state legislature. I trust you to do the right thing and reverse this embarrassing ill-conceived bill.

  32. hollyonthehill Says:

    Just so you know, it does not matter whether it’s the state paying for the cell phone or the legislator, whether it’s on work hours or not. It’s all GRAMA-able.

  33. Cim Says:

    Holly, I’m curious where you got your information about the WVC $30,000 GRAMA request.

    Mayor Winder said this deal never happened.
    A constituent e-mailed Mike Winder asking him who made the request, if it was the media, or a special interest group or private citizen and this was his reply.

    “I just looked into this, and West Valley City has never had a request like this made. It appears there is some misinformation out there!
    Mike”

    Do you have a source for this information?

  34. Tim Says:

    Holly.

    I am glad to hear you are considering a reversal of your vote. Looking over the bill I need to better understand your initial position based on the wording of the actual Bill, especially lines 55 through 58:
    55 provides that records may be classified as protected if they are prepared in
    56 anticipation of legislation;
    57 provides that work product records may be classified as protecte…d if the record
    58 involves anticipated or pending legislation;

    knowing this was the wording in the Bill did you support it?

  35. Dwight Says:

    If you are so afraid of the GRAMA-monster you can always go back to the sidelines and just blog about politics. The reason why personal communication devices/accounts are potentially GRAMA-able is due to the many politicians who tried to circumvent things like GRAMA by using personal stuff for official business. I think Mrs. Palin is a notable example of using her private Yahoo account to try and avoid public scrutiny of official government business. That doesn’t mean I can GRAMA request your weekly shopping list and actually get it.

    Seriously your ‘regret’ and the governor’s all seem to be trying to save face until the public outcry blows over and you can still get this horrible law on the books. There may even be concessions made, perhaps planned from the start, to throw a bone to the public and distract them from the fact that in the end Utah government will be less open.

  36. Jacob Says:

    Holly, I am also interested to know your source on the WVC request. Most of all, was this just a “rookie” mistake on your part? have you learned your lesson in not trusting the house leadership? Hopefully in the future you’ll take the time to do your own research on a bill, and have the courage to vote no if you haven’t been given the time to do your due diligence on a bill.

  37. L. Hatch Says:

    Holly is right when she says that personally owned accounts as well as government ones may have records that could be accessible under GRAMA.

    For example, there is a member of a governing body whom I e-mail about upcoming issues. I always use his e-mail address provided on the government web site. He always answers from his gmail account. The content of his return e-mails are about the public’s business. His reply should not become protected because he chose to answer from his personal account rather than his government account. GRAMA is about content not about service providers. GRAMA is about citizens being able to have access into what went into a decision not just the final vote.

    Personal, non-government business related e-mails would be private or protected under GRAMA and would not be released. As would grocery lists, tax returns, etc.

  38. Adam Gale Says:

    In an era of alleged transparency, our leaders decide it’s time to hide what they’re doing. Now we will have to pay thru the nose to find out if they’re receiving texts from lobbyists, or if they’ve received gifts from lobbyists. There is absolutely no reason to pass the bill they just passed if they didn’t have something to hide. Utah legislature has betrayed the average citizen in the name of government secrecy. Beware secret combinations.

  39. Adam Gale Says:

    What needs to happen is we get two referendums. One that puts GRAMA back the way it was, and then another one to be able to recall representatives if enough people support it. We’d be able to remove the leaders that aren’t capable or are unwilling to represent their constituents.

  40. Jared Says:

    What do you have to hide, Holly, that you don’t want the public to discover through GRAMA requests? If you truly had nothing to hide, then you’d have no problem with that information being released through GRAMA. So what’s the great secret?

  41. Dwight Says:

    I don’t know if there is any substance, but someone brought up elsewhere that Utah will be redrawing the district lines soon in view of the additional seat in congress. I think any adult can recognize that the majority party of any state legislature is going to do their best to gerrymander those districts in their favor. Part of the trick is if you can hide parts of the process then it is easier for the public to swallow.

  42. Kate Lahey Says:

    I would like to second Joel Campbell’s comments about the creation of GRAMA. You really owe it to yourself and your constituents, Holly, to read what GRAMA actually says, instead of relying on talking points prepared by others.

    As a member of the bipartisan committees that originally drafted GRAMA almost 20 years ago, I can assure you that we debated long and hard about whether electronic records should be as accessible as paper records. In the end, we agreed that they should be–that more and more government records were bound to be kept in an electronic format, and that the public deserved to have access to them.

    I can also assure you that just about every member of that original committee would be troubled by the sweeping provisions of HB 477 and by the lack of public participation in the Legislature’s adoption of the bill.

    HB 477 is a bad bill and deserves to be repealed immediately.

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