New OpEd: Utah’s Transparency Problem

Over the past year, despite the public outcry over the anti-transparency HB477, Utah’s Legislature and attorney general have quietly resumed their continuing assault on the principles of open and transparent government. Yet this assault has received little attention.

During the 2012 legislative session, Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, succeeded in passing SB21, which effectively stripped several environmental regulatory boards of the requirement that their membership include medical practitioners, replacing it with a requisite for “industry representatives.” Utah’s Radiation Control Board, responsible for the regulation and oversight of radiation within our state, is the first to be affected.

In a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse, the name put forward by Gov. Gary Herbert to represent the industry was Ed Shrum of EnergySolutions, the radioactive waste storage firm.

Standard procedure would be to present such a nominee, who must be nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Utah Senate, at a public hearing of the Natural Resources Confirmation Committee. During this process, legislators would have an opportunity to question and scrutinize the nominee on the record, and public testimony would be heard.

However, in an affront to governmental transparency, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, sent Shrum’s nomination directly to the Senate floor for a simple up or down vote without the usual hearing and public comment. Fortunately, at the last moment, the Legislature succumbed to outside pressure and Shrum’s nomination was sent back to committee for a public hearing.

In a further affront to transparency, the Legislature has continued its refusal to apply a fee waiver exception to the release of redistricting information to the State Democratic Party, as well as to The Salt Lake Tribune and ABC4. The documents have been prepared. The work has been done. The Democrats paid the $5,000 they were originally quoted. But now the Legislature wants another $10,000 to release the records on the basis that release of the information is not in the public’s interest.

Redistricting is a critically important undertaking, with a wide-ranging impact on our democratic process, and it received enormous public attention. It involved dozens of public meetings and, no doubt, hundreds of closed-door meetings. It is hard to imagine anything more in the public’s interest than understanding how the outcome came to be, yet the Legislature has erred on the side of secrecy rather than transparency.

Finally, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has thumbed his nose at transparency with an attempted end run around the judicial process. Utah’s Arizona-style immigration law, HB497, has been temporarily enjoined by order of U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups, who properly noted that it is unclear whether or not Utah has the authority to enact such immigration policy.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld a portion of Arizona’s immigration law, yet it did not address much of the Utah policy. The attorney general, however, is now arguing that the ruling should be applied in our state as well, and has filed a request to skip a standard hearing, urging the judge to simply lift the restraining order without a full adjudication of the issues.

Our state was founded on principles of open and transparent government. Legislative and judicial processes earn the respect of the citizenry because of an assurance of access to those procedures and the knowledge that the elected officials involved are accountable to each and every one of us.

It seems that our Legislature and attorney general need reminding.

Eric Ethington is interim communications director for Alliance for a Better UTAH.

See it on the Salt Lake Tribune HERE.

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