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Why Open Records Assault Came Undone

Why Open Records Assault Came Undone

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

SALT LAKE CITY -- It took less than four days for the Utah Legislature to introduce, debate and pass a bill that severely overhauled the state's public records laws. It only took three days for that work to unravel.

The explanation for the turbo-charged rise and fall of HB 477 is not complicated. Outside of the 82 lawmakers who voted for it, virtually nobody else thought it was a good idea.

Especially, it appears, Governor Gary Herbert.

The Governor's quick efforts to encourage a recall and reassessment of the bill reflect a political reality that was apparently lost on a lot of legislators - that there was little if any public support for the measure in the first place.

Public dismay over the sweeping nature of the law, and how it was fast-tracked, came swiftly, and transcended political viewpoints.

"Remember all, this is not a Democrat, Republican, independent, black, white, Catholic, Mormon issue. It crosses all boundaries," Tony Rivas, a Draper resident, posted on a Facebook page that sprung up over the weekend, calling for the repeal of HB477. "These public servants need to be held accountable."

Lawmakers and the Governor's office reported receiving hundreds of messages from people concerned about the law. No one reported hearing from someone who said they liked it. A poll on the passage of HB477 commissioned by the Deseret News and KSL TV the day the bill passed the House, showed unequivocal public opposition to limiting access to government records.

In the poll, conducted by Dan Jones and Associates, 63 percent of all respondents said they definitely favor unrestricted access to government records. Broken down demographically, the numbers paint an exceptional landscape of bipartisan consensus.

Of those who describe themselves as "very conservative," 73 percent said they definitely favored fewer restrictions. Of those who describe themselves as "very liberal," the number is 82 per cent. Ninety percent of "strong Republicans" said they definitely or probably favored fewer restrictions. Eighty-seven of "Strong Democrats" agreed.

Organizations typically separated by an ideological chasm weighed in on the same side. The head of the conservative Eagle Forum criticized the process as "way too fast." The American Civil Liberties Union said it created a "serious roadblock" to open government.

Such reaction begs the question as to how seasoned lawmakers could so grossly underestimate the tsunami of public antipathy the bill would unleash. The answer is, perhaps they didn't.

Senate President Michael Waddoups spoke directly to the potential for political fallout when he admitted the bill was put forward this year because "nobody likes to do this in an election year," He also candidly admitted the bill was fast-tracked with the aim of having it put to bed by Friday night because, "it will complicate matters if it has a weekend to fester."

Complicate indeed. Support disintegrated when lawmakers found themselves having a hard time explaining to constituents why they couldn't wait and study the measure more thoroughly. The initial public reaction was apparently influenced more by how the bill was passed than by what the bill may or may not actually do.

"Before the general public had time to respond, let alone be properly informed, the Utah State Legislature has taken it upon themselves to limit public access to public information," said Bob Aagard, , on a Facebook posting. Mr. Aagard, Holladay, is among the organizers of a social media campaign in opposition to the bill.

And the Thursday poll numbers reflect a strong public sentiment for a "take your time" approach. Overall, 88 percent of Utahns favor additional study. Among Republicans, its 90 percent; Democrats, 89 percent.

Evidence that Utahns are strongly devoted to the concept of open government, a reality clearly reflected in the short but tempestuous story of HB 477.


Con Psarras


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