Utah’s nationally-admired Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), one created over 20 years ago and praised by many for its governmental openness, has been eviscerated by the Utah State Legislature. The new law will make sweeping changes in the public’s ability to scrutinize their elected officials and access public documents.

What GRAMA has meant for Utahns in the past, is that public records have presumably been ‘open’ to citizens’ review. That also meant that records of what elected officials were doing when serving, such as emails, phone conversations, who were paid to lobby them, were all public information. In addition, if a citizen or group wanted to examine or make copies of records on a certain subject they were concerned with, they could go to their public office and get copies of related documents-usually at a small cost.

However, there were exceptions for records being closed under the law. Real estate negotiations, personnel matters, some juvenile documents and threat of potential physical harm, were just a few of some exclusions allowed as justification for denial.

If the governmental entity denied access to the public record, the person would make a formal ‘GRAMA request’ in writing. The agency then had a set deadline to respond to the requesting party in writing, explaining their basis of denying the record.

If a person or entity felt they were being unjustly denied a record by the governmental entity, they could appeal it to the State Records Committee or go to court. Many denied records requests are considered by the committee consisting of a state employee, state lawyer, records archive employee, media representative, and an industry representative.

Controversial  House Bill 477 passed both houses last week, and was expected to be signed into law by Governor Herbert on March 7. Herbert does have the option of vetoing the bill, but it could still become law later this year, since it received the required two-thirds majority to override a veto.

The Legislature’s new model for ‘open government’ exempts itself from much of GRAMA. Most all an elected representative’s electronic communications will now be protected, including text messages, voice mails or video chat from disclosure, regardless of whether public officials are conducting public business. In addition, governments will have the right to charge more for public records.

The whirlwind introduction of H.B, 477, and its subsequent passage in both houses surprised many. The bill was introduced by Representative John Dougall, R-American Fork, saying he thought it was needed to ‘protect’ correspondence with constituents that should be kept private. He also accused the news media of using GRAMA laws to pry into the private lives of lawmakers.

The bill is the first of its kind in the nation, and is creating shocked reactions from media, educators, and citizens across the U.S.

Two national Freedom of Information experts, Charles Davis of University of Missouri and David Cullier at University of Arizona, have been reviewing the bill, and say it is now the worst law on the books in the United States.

“This legislation is the most horrific anti-Freedom of Information Act legislation I have ever seen,” said Cullier. “I think, in all seriousness, that Mexico FOIA law is probably better.”

“This is a lobbyist’s dream, and a citizen’s nightmare, an untraceable communications channel in which the privileged have exclusive, real-time access to lawmakers on the floor,” said Davis. “It’s also a real boon for the city council that wishes to hash things out in private rather than debate publicly. Imagine your school board, heads down, texting away while doing the public’s business.”

GRAMA law has always provided that public access depends on the content, not the physical form of the record. But the new legislative changes provides that the reverse is true.

“Unlike every other state in the country,” said Davis, “Utah is now embracing the concept that the medium, rather than the message, is what’s important when it comes to openness.”

But Uthans have received the message loud and clear – Utah government wants to operate in the dark.

News Break: Late Monday, Gov. Herbert, instead of signing the bill, sent it back to the legislature for further review.