Bill would protect public official’s text messages

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah House passed a bill Thursday that would make secret public officials’ text messages, e-mails and other electronic communications, and would significantly increase the fees to get public records. The current law uses the content of a record, such as an e-mail or a document, to determine whether it is public. Supporters of House Bill 477 argue the current law is too broad because it was written 20 years ago when such informal modes of communication as text messaging and e-mail were not widely used. Often, public officials forego electronic communications or delete everything immediately, bill sponsor Rep. John Dougall said. “We’re getting to where we’re saying every correspondence you have is subject to a records request,” said Dougall, R-Highland. “Even for an open government guy like me, it gives me pause.” He is proposing that those types of documents be excluded from the public records law. More than a half-dozen media executives and advocacy groups are actively opposing the bill. Utah Media Coalition lawyer Jeff Hunt, who helped craft the original Government Records Access Management Act, said the changes would do great damage to one of the best open record laws in the country. The use of the record’s content to determine whether it is public protects personal information, among other things, he said. “What matters is not the physical form the record is in,” Hunt said. The bill has the backing of many legislative leaders. House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said there have been 10 requests this legislative session that required more than 400 hours of staff time. The Associated Press has filed one of the requests, asking for the written communications between legislative leaders, Gov. Gary Herbert and his senior budget staff. The request has not yet been fulfilled. Hughes said private conversations are allowed under GRAMA, but they become records if done electronically. “It was contemplated that there could be sidebars and private conversations,” Hughes said. “When GRAMA was drafted, there were only two ways to do that,” by phone and in person. Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said e-mail and text messages “have replaced a phone call.” But GRAMA lacks a definition of what is protected communication, which the bill seeks to fix. Hillyard wasn’t concerned about the lack of public input on the bill because the changes need to happen quickly. “You can open it up and spend five years on it, and never get to a consensus,” Hillyard said. Linda Petersen with the Utah Open Government Coalition said the bill deals a fatal blow to transparency. “This will bleed GRAMA dry and leave her in the gutter,” Petersen said.

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