This week the 2011 GRAMA saga ended with a working group recommending minor changes to the 20-year-old open records law.
And so we see this political fiasco ending with a whimper, not a bang.
That’s exactly how Gov. Gary Herbert and GOP state lawmakers would like it to end, too.
The Legislature does many good things. You can’t count HB477 as one of them.
Rarely do politicians pass laws or make budgets that get just about everyone – their natural opposite-party detractors AND their partisan base mad at them.
But HB477 did just that.
Now, one can rightly say that the local Utah media over-reacted on the GRAMA amendments.
The Salt Lake Tribune ran not just one, but two, front-page editorials chastising Herbert and legislators over the proposed changes in HB477.
But the media screaming didn’t solely account for the immediate and harsh uprising among various individuals and groups in the state.
When you have the state Democratic Party and the various Tea Partiers blasting the Legislature at the same time, you know you’ve really screwed up.
And it wasn’t just those two ends of the political spectrum.
Legislators were getting an earful of complaints from their friends and neighbors back home; as the lawmakers went shopping, in their private business connections, and to church.
One GOP lawmaker said his LDS bishop came up to him in church and asked what had happened. “I thought you were a good guy,” said the bishop, the distraught lawmaker said.
Another said she met with her House district GOP delegates after the 2011 general session ended and every one of them – unanimously – said HB477 should be repealed.
And in a spring special session legislators did repeal the unfortunate law even before it would have taken effect.
The working group’s final report shows that there are problems with GRAMA. It does need to be updated, especially in regards to new types of electronic communications and to deal with conflicts highlighted in a recent Utah Supreme Court decision.
But legislators are not going to get – at least not any time soon – some carve outs in the current open government records law that they would have liked.
A grumpy group of legislators don’t like that their text messages may now have to be searched, or “scrubbed” as the new technology says.
And they don’t like that emails, texts or other electronic communications from their regular constituents does not receive a higher degree of privacy than any other kind of communication.
In short, legislators say, their constituents believe – incorrectly – that they, the constituent, have a right of privacy in their communication with their elected officials.
There is not now, nor has there ever been, any kind of constituent/lawmaker privilege like there is in a doctor/patient, priest/confessor or attorney/client relationship.
For Utah legislators to even consider that there is such protection is not only odd, but stretches the imagination.
Perhaps some of this comes from the fact that historically a high number of legislators have, at one time, also been lay leaders in their local LDS Church congregations.
If you are used to telling personal and private things to a man who used to be your bishop, but who is now your House member, then maybe you can confuse the two offices held.
But they are not the same. And they are not treated the same under various laws of the state.
Anything you send in written form to a legislator falls under GRAMA as a record. (There are certain exemptions to that, like for a text message that can’t be saved and retrieved on an older-model cell phone.)
What many legislators apparently forget – or chose not to remember in the heightened HB477 debate – is that while such personal communications are searchable under GRAMA, almost always they are kept “private” or “personal” under various definitions if the open records law.
So while a legislator may complain that he doesn’t want a text message or email from a constituent to “show up on the front page of the Tribune,” as we heard over and over again in the HB477 debate, in reality such a personal message would not be released after the appropriate GRAMA review.
Some Utah lawmakers may want all of their communications with their constituents protected. That would make the GRAMA world a much simpler place for both the legislator and the constituent.
But it would also close down what is, and will continue to be, a vital cog in the transparent state and local government working wheel.
It’s the old adage: You don’t want what you say to your legislator publicized, but you want to know what your neighbor is saying, especially what that lobbyist is saying, to your legislator.
As media and open government groups argued before the now-finished GRAMA working group: You lose faith in a government system if things inside that system are withheld from you; kept secret.
It doesn’t matter if you get to vote on your House member every two years and senator every four years if you don’t know most of what that guy is doing in office. In reality, in many parts of Utah voters are disenfranchised: the GOP or Democratic party delegates get to pick the party nominee. And the district is so heavily Republican or Democratic that that nominee wins.
Around 90 percent of the Utah legislators who seek re-election win. Almost all of the turnover comes when an incumbent decides not to run again and retires, or, more sadly, he or she dies in office.
Voter turnout in Utah is steadily dropping. If your vote really doesn’t change anything, why bother.
So, as cynicism grows it is more important than ever that GRAMA be around to provide access to government records that, in a fair and balanced way, can be made public.
I say thanks to the working group for its study and recommendations.
Now we’ll see if Utah lawmakers will fight the GRAMA battle again any time soon.