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NUTHIN' UP MY SLEEVE!: A cow moose rests Tuesday in 3 feet of snow beside the Logan River just west of Tony Grove. / Photo by Mike Sweeney

Today's word on journalism

Friday, March 10, 2006

Help Wanted: U.S. Defense Department Seeks Better PR Officers

"Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but . . . our country has not adapted. For the most part, the U.S. government still functions as a 'five and dime' store in an eBay world."

--U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on why al Qaeda is winning hearts and minds, in speech to U.S. Council on Foreign Relation (Thanks to alert WORDster Mark Larson) WORD Note: The WORD will take the next week off for Spring Break, sleeping in and seeking wisdom. Return: 3/20/06

Media watchers holding their breath as open records bills head toward a vote

By Marie MacKay

February 24, 2006 | Imagine having only one phone number available to the public to contact the hundreds of faculty members at Utah State University.

That could be one of many changes to Utah's open records that may occur in just five days, when legislators make their final decisions on several bills amending the Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA), officials say.

"I think we'd be safe to say that we felt the state's open records law was under siege this session," said Joel Campbell, legislative monitor for the Utah Press Association.

"We hope we've worked out some agreements with some legislators that some of these bills will not come forward."

But Rep. Fred Hunsaker, who was a member of the GRAMA task force that created these pieces of legislation this summer, said people needs to research the bills and form their own opinions.

"Don't just rely on somebody else's interpretation," he said. "I think there can be a lot of misinterpretation."

One of the bills that many lobbyists and newspaper outlets are concerned about is HB 258.

It began when a Salt Lake Tribune reporter requested a list of the lawmakers' phone numbers.

Open-records issues before the Legislature

H.B. 258: (substitute bill approved by both Houses, signed by Huntsman) Limits closed access to mobile communications and allows government agencies to identify only one single number for all their employees.

HB 12: (passed House and Senate Committee and pending on Senate floor) Would make secret all communications between any elected official and any other person

HB 281: (passed Committee but is stuck in House Rules Committee) Closes access to a minor's name, age, address, phone number or Social Security number.

SB 77: (held in Committee) Closes access to government inspection records unless a business was fined or sanctioned.

SB 190: (passed the Senate and a House Committee and pending now on the House floor) Involves shared records and requires the originating agency that has classified a record as non-public (rather than the agency with whom the record has been shared) to defend and bear the costs of any GRAMA appeals of that determination. Substitute HB 28 (passed House and a Senate Committee and pending on the

Senate floor) Protects Utahns' home addresses and phone numbers and cell phone numbers if the information is required on government records.

SB 15 (passed Senate and a House Committee, pending now in House Rules Committee) Required all records request denial appeals to be heard by the State Records Committee unless both the government records manager and the requester agree to go to court. Allows records manager to direct request for records to already-existing publications.

SB 110 (withdrawn) Closes access to judge addresses and voting information.

Source: Mike O'Brien, attorney for the Utah Media Coalition.

In response, the Legislature passed a bill that not only puts the lawmaker's "Blackberry" numbers off limits, but could allow government entities to make public only one phone number, address and e-mail address for an entire agency, school or city government, Campbell said. "It's like attacking a mosquito with an atomic bomb," he said.

"[The bill] has unattended consequences where they're trying to fix a problem and went too far."

However, Hunsaker said when GRAMA was first passed in the early '90s, certain forms of communication, such as e-mail, were not a big issue. The question was how to handle e-mail when the majority of written contact between the government and public was by e-mail. The bill was passed and signed into law by Huntsman in addition to another substitute bill, HB 188, limits closed access solely to mobile communication. But HB 188 still will not solve the problem of allowing government agencies to identify only one single number for all their employees, said Mike O'Brien, attorney for the Utah Media Coalition.

Another bill that is causing concern is HB12, sponsored by Rep. Douglas Aagard, R-Kaysville, which would make secret all communications between any elected official and any other person.

"This completely reverses the way it has been under GRAMA during the past 15 years," said . "We think that's a terrible closure of what's a very vital part of government."

If the bill is passed, the worst case scenario resulting from the change would be for example, a waste contractor having secret negotiations with a government elected official, O'Brien said.

"There's a way in GRAMA to protect privacy without taking this sweeping secrecy," he said.

The bill is pending on the Senate floor and members of the coalition are working with Senate President John Valentine and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to fight the issue.

Since the coalition became involved, many of the members' concerns have been resolved, but despite all their work, they won't know if it paid off until March 2, O'Brien said. "It's hard to get the average citizen upset about these issues," he said.

"[The passing of all these bills] would have amounted to death by a thousand cuts; that's why the media took the issue so seriously." In the beginning when the bills were being drafted, Hunsaker said many members of the task force wondered why they were making these changes in the first place.

"I think one of the first hurdles was to learn what was working and what wasn't," Hunsaker said. During the several months it took to decide on the proposed changes, more than a hundred people testified before the task force that something needed to be done.

"In the final analysis, it wasn't a partisan issue, all the Democrats and Republicans supported the bills equally," Hunsaker said. "I'm not sure just how it will turn out but I'm not unhappy about the amendments."


Copyright 1997-2005 Utah State University Department of Journalism & Communication, Logan UT 84322, (435) 797-1000
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