Legislators Consider Allowing Citizen Correspondence to be Closed to Public

Legislators Consider Allowing Citizen Correspondence to be Closed to Public

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Legislators are considering allowing public officials to refuse public access to correspondence with citizens.

Members of a legislative task force also are considering allowing public employees to reject records requests they decide are meant to harass.

Other proposals would allow officials to charge more for government records provided in spreadsheet or database form and would require that all appeals go to the State Records Committee before they could go to court.

The task force picking through the 13-year-old Government Records Access and Management Act was assigned the task of looking at ways to protect residents from identity theft and local governments from malicious requests for records.

However, in addition to looking for ways to keep Social Security numbers, home addresses and phone numbers out of government records, the legislators also are considering provisions to limit public access to other information.

A draft bill forwarded to the 2006 Legislature clarifies the definition of a public record. Every state agency and local government would be required to file a schedule of records it would maintain. The judicial and legislative branches would be allowed to classify and retain their own records.

Lawmakers removed provisions in the bill that would have blocked access to internal communication or memos that do not establish policy, state Sen. Dave Thomas, R-South Weber and co-chairman of the task force, said Tuesday.

However, the legislators retained a provision that would exempt all correspondence between elected officials and any "citizen of the State of Utah" from public access.

The letters, e-mails or notes would not become public unless the writer or the receiver agreed to make it public.

Another change to GRAMA, not yet voted on by the task force, would give broad discretion to government workers about what documents to release. Under the proposal, public employees could deny records requests they judged to be "harassing or otherwise unreasonably increasing the workload or causing unwarranted expense."

Allison Barlow Hess, a Weber State University journalism professor and Society of Professional Journalists Utah Board member, said, "Who gets to decide when it's harassment and when it's a reasonable request even if it falls at an inconvenient time?"

Paul Thompson, an attorney representing Alta, said the current law can be manipulated to interfere with legitimate public business.

"There are several frustrated developers who would like to use the procedures in GRAMA to tie up the staffs of small towns," he said.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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