Salt Lake City – A cloud of secrecy still hangs over GRAMA proceedings after a recent request to obtain information regarding how fee waivers are determined was sidestepped by the state’s records keepers.
Fee waivers are generally granted in connection with GRAMA requests deemed to be in the public interest. This issue was hotly debated when redistricting records were requested by the Utah State Democratic Party, the Salt Lake Tribune and several individual citizens, all of whom were denied their requests for a public interest fee waiver.
In late August, the Alliance for a Better UTAH submitted a GRAMA request to each of the Utah House and Senate seeking information on all GRAMA requests in 2011 and 2012 that had been granted a public interest fee waiver. Better UTAH GRAMA’d GRAMA.
[All documents referenced in this release can be found here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/107219989/Better-UTAH-GRAMA-Request ]
With the aid of the public records ombudsman, the request was made to determine under what circumstances the state’s records committee decides a request is in the public interest so that a fee waiver can be granted. The requested documents were returned incomplete by GRAMA officials in the House and Senate.
Though the request was returned with a list of people or organizations and whether or not they received a fee waiver, no information was provided about the material being sought by each request receiving the waiver, nor about how the request was determined to be for the benefit of the public. In fact, records officers from the Senate and House returned with the admonition that if “you would like to know more about the reasoning behind the Legislature’s policies and the ongoing debate, please contact your elected officials.”
Engaging in the sort of circular reasoning that has hampered the effectiveness of open records laws in the state, GRAMA officials enclosed a copy of the Utah Legislature Policies and Procedures for Handling Records Requests. The official policy on whether or not a fee can be waived states only that the record must “primarily [benefit] the public rather than the person requesting the record.”
The criteria for determining public interest remains unanswered, and some are asking whether or not GRAMA can accomplish its original purposes to make Utah government more transparent and open.
“The spirit of HB 477 remains in the open records request process,” said Maryann Martindale, executive director of Better UTAH. “Did we really overturn HB 477, or are the interests of the public still being ignored?”
HB 477 was the controversial bill put forward by legislators in early 2011 that would have gutted GRAMA of most of its effectiveness. HB 477 was passed by the Legislature along partisan lines and was signed into law by Governor Herbert but was later repealed in response to public outcry. Even though HB 477 was repealed, its intentions are still seen in the difficulty Martindale and others have in getting their requests approved. Fee waivers have been even more difficult to come by.
As an example, a request made by the Alliance for a Better UTAH in June of this year for a list of political conferences, and the legislators who attended them using taxpayer dollars, was turned down. It’s disclosure was not deemed in the public’s interest.
“What is in the public interest?” asked Martindale. “We can’t even get information on how legislators are spending our taxpayer dollars.”
But the state legislature’s penchant for secrecy isn’t shared by all. Currently there is hope that GRAMA requests could get a little easier. Senator Curt Bramble has floated the idea of making public records easily accessible by Internet, an idea that could gain traction in the 2013 legislative session.
“One cannot operate GRAMA – a program dedicated to open and transparent government – in the dark,” said Martindale. “The Utah Legislature talks a good game about open and transparent government but walks a very different walk.”
Alliance for a Better UTAH | 801.664.9751 | www.betterutah.org
The Alliance for a Better UTAH is a year-round, multi-issue education and advocacy organization providing resources, commentary, and action on important public policy matters.