It’s Sunshine Week — that time of year when journalists, elected officials and citizen watchdogs celebrate the ability to read police reports, government finances, health inspections and a variety of other records that belong to the citizenry.
The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists believes Utah’s record laws, called the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, are among the best record laws in the country. Nevertheless, here are three things that would improve Utahns’ ability to know what their governments are doing, and that don’t require an act of the Utah Legislature.
• Don’t use fees as a deterrent. Record requesters everywhere were outraged last year when a U.S. Navy memo surfaced discussing how to use fees — or the threat of fees — as a way to force a journalist to narrow the scope of his or her records request. Here in Utah, charging for records has been a contentious issue pitting requesters against the finite budgets of local government.
While sometimes fees are appropriate to recoup costs, we urge government agencies in Utah to adopt policies stating fees should never be applied as a means of deterring someone from filing a request or pursuing records.
• Plan for record requests. Technology is increasing government’s capacity to keep records. But when an agency ponders which software or hardware to buy, it’s not clear whether the buyers are remembering that the data they will store will belong to the public.
Purchasers should quiz vendors about the ability to export data and whether records that are almost always private, such as social security numbers, can be segregated. Employees entering the data should be careful not to mix the private information in fields that should otherwise be public.
• Provide instructions. Go to almost any federal web page and you’ll find a link at the bottom for the Freedom of Information Act — the federal public records law. Click the link, and you’ll find instructions on how to file a records request.
Go to a state of Utah website or a website hosted by a city, county, school district or another local government and you’ll be lucky to find anything about GRAMA, much less a link on every webpage.
Utah’s state and local governments should follow the federal approach and clearly place GRAMA instructions on their homepages and on the headers or footers of webpages. For citizens who don’t utilize the Internet, posting instructions in government offices would be a simple solution.
• And one more thing. Discussions about GRAMA almost always seem to be based on the anecdotal — from the onerous request for every water record Alta ever produced to the citizen who believes an agency denied his or her request as part of a cover up.
No one knows much about the reality of GRAMA because few agencies or municipalities keep data.
Government agencies can do lawmakers and transparency advocates a big service by collecting data on how many GRAMA requests they receive, whether the requester was a journalist, a business or an average citizen, whether the request was granted in whole or part and what fees the agency charged the requester.
When the data are in, we all will be able to talk better about how to make GRAMA even greater.
The Society of Professional Journalists is dedicated to the perpetuation of a free press as the cornerstone of our nation and our liberty. The Utah Headliners Chapter is the state’s largest SPJ chapter. Learn more at www.spj.org.