Government Access

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

Kevin VanOrden

English 2010

Intermediate Writing

Proposal

 Government Access

Putting your November vote to work! How can you be more involved in your local, state and federal government? For many taxpayers and voters the only time they get personally involved with their government is when they vote for elected officials and when they pay their taxes. Thousands of taxpayers aren’t even old enough to vote so they take an even smaller roll in government. But making your tax dollars and your vote work the way you want them to takes some thought and effort. Currently it isn’t very easy to get involved in the government without spending a considerable amount of time. With all the amazing technology we have, literally at our fingertips, access to our elected officials should be much easier than it is now. Most recently the HB477 Government Records Amendment shows the need to be more involved in the government and their actions. Doing so will save thousands of tax dollars which can be used elsewhere.

 

HB477

The Legislature here in the state of you Utah felt it was time to update the GRAMA Act of 1991. GRAMA which stands for Government Records Access and Management was created to regulate the access to all government documents. They felt that it was outdated and was not protecting their personal lives. They felt that there were far too many requests for documents containing personal information including emails and text messages, and that those requests were for the most part not valid. The purpose of HB477 was to disallow any citizen from requesting transcripts of meetings and conversations that were held at the expense of the tax payers. They were trying to further distance themselves from being for the people and by the people.

 

CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC

One of the main reasons that we all need to get more involved is so that our elected officials know what we want and what our goals are for the future. Granted not everyone will be happy, but that’s just part of how this government works. If the majority does nothing and lets the minority take their thoughts and ideas to the top, the majority will be forced to either sit by and deal with the results or take a stand and make their voice heard. My case in point is that during the 2011 General Legislative Session a bill, HB477 was proposed, voted on, passed and signed by the governor. The minority, congress, had a goal and plan which they followed through with at record speed. This bill went to the floor late in the session and within a few days it found its way onto the law books of the state of Utah, thus restricting and denying access to once public documents. Upon reaching the majority, the rest of the state, an uproar came upon the capitol with a fierceness not often seen. The public was outraged at what had happened and demanded the bill be repealed.

The Utah State Legislature website covers each line item of HB477. Some of the main points that caused all the commotion are:

  • Provides that voice mails, instant messages, video chats, and text messages are not records subject to the act, with some exceptions;
  • provides that personal emails or similar electronic addresses of current or former  government employees or applicants are private records;
  • Modifies the protected record status of communications between legislators and staff in relation to performance of their official duties
  • Provides that data and working papers associate with fiscal not for legislation are protected until legislation has passed

There are many more lines in this bill which, too many to list here. But the main focus of the outcry and this proposal is that in a day and age when every government level from local to federal is seeking to be more open and transparent, this bill did the exact opposite, it literally closed the doors to public access to the dealings of our Senators and Representatives. In any other company most all documents, work related phone calls, communications including texts, emails, voicemails, notes etc. that are made with company property are available to be reviewed by the company. If there are personal emails, texts, messages etc. those should be done on personal phones, emails, or simply on personal time. In some cases companies allow personal use with company property. But in the case of the government most any communication dealing with their duties as public employees should be made available for public review.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

With the onslaught of letters, phone calls, petitions, and media reports Governor Gary Herbert issued a call for a special session to open on March 24th, 2011 to discuss repealing HB477. A statement by the governor dated March 21st, 2011 states:

“Twenty years ago, the State Legislature passed Utah’s GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act). Its proper focus was government transparency and accountability, but it did not and could not anticipate our world of new media.
A public’s right to have access to government records, processes and officials is the hallmark of a modern republic-and a principle I have consistently advocated. Not only have I responded to scores of GRAMA requests in my public career, I support this process as a private citizen. In fact, I care so much about the process in making policy, because the right process yields the right outcomes.
During the recent legislative session, the public hearing process for HB477 did not meet the standard of openness and public dialog such legislation warranted. The bill passed after limited deliberation with veto-proof margins.
I considered a veto. Indeed, a veto would have had symbolic value. Yet the risk of HB477 becoming law immediately upon the Legislature’s veto-override was too great.  Instead, I asked legislative leadership to recall and amend the bill to provide three things: 1) a delayed implementation date, 2) a process for meaningful public and stakeholder input, whereby a replacement bill could be crafted, and 3) reflects my commitment to call a special legislative session to repeal and replace HB477.
It is now clear to me that HB477, both in process and substance, has resulted in a loss of public confidence.  The Utah State Legislature now has the opportunity to work with the media and the public to restore that confidence by forming a working group to create a replacement for HB477. This group should consist of legislators, new and traditional media representatives, and members of the general public.
I expect all stakeholders to engage as honest brokers in good faith-putting aside personal bias and cynicism-for deliberative, open discussion.   The media has committed to finding the right outcome.  The Legislature has committed to the same.  I expect the public to engage and protect their rights.
Any modifications to GRAMA must meet three principles.  First, they must protect the public’s right to know, as transparent and accountable government is essential.  Second, they must protect every individual’s legitimate right to privacy.  Third, they must protect taxpayers against the cost of overreaching “fishing expeditions.”
Let me be clear: I will soon call the Legislature into special session. That was my commitment when I signed the bill, and it is my commitment now. I expect-and the people expect-that the Utah State Legislature will repeal and replace HB477.  This will assure that whatever the outcome for Utah’s GRAMA; there will have been an open process for transparent and accountable government.”

THE COST OF A SPECIAL SESSION

Above I mentioned that voters and taxpayers need to get more involved and put their tax dollars to work. After conducting some research I have found that on average a special session costs in between $20,000 and $50,000 per day, with the scale typically leaning towards the higher end. The $20,000 days are when it is not a full session and is made up of smaller groups and committees; unfortunately this was not the case with the most recent special session. This money could have been spent more wisely somewhere else. One of the reasons given for passing the bill was issues such as this: “West Valley City had to deal with a request for all land-use decisions over the past 30 years; it took 1 full time person 3 months, including multiple reviews by other staff, to fill the request. Costs approached $30,000.” One day of the special session nearly doubled this request for land-use decisions. The money spent covers the per diem for each Representative and Senator, also money for their food, travel and lodging.

CUT UNECESSARY SPENDING & INCREASE PUBLIC AWARNESS

The special session called to repeal HB477 could have been prevented had there been more public awareness prior to the bill being passed in the general session. Solving this problem could be as simple as creating policies regarding the time a proposed bill must be available to the public prior to receiving a vote. Any legislator proposing a bill would need to allow time prior to the ending of the general session to get public input. Using both new and old media to get the word out and to make the public aware of any pending laws is necessary in informing the citizens of Utah and making them aware. There are so many readily available, easy to use and very costs efficient ways to address these matters and make them well know to what is happening.

GETTING TECHNOLOGY AND YOU INVOLVED

There may be times where a petition is required to get congress to reverse a decision or make any decision at all. This solution may take some time and thought but it will be worth the effort. To start off there needs to be a way to create a legitimate and valid online petition. There are groups spending hours and hundreds if not thousands of dollars organizing and putting together events to get people to sign petitions to repeal HB477. One reason for this bill was to replace the outdated GRAMMA bill that did not cover new media. If congress can create a bill that will implement the new technology age, then they should allow the public to use that same technology to voice their opinion. It would be fairly simple to create an online petition, where one would sign in and e-sign their name and validate it with their social security number. To start off with this method will increase the validity of each signature. Currently there is nothing stopping me from signing a petition for myself, my family, friends, neighbors or co-workers. The data collected would be formatted by computer and be available to every congressperson and to the general public. It could further be restricted to registered voters, which would allow for more specific and localized data, but would restrict minors from getting personally involved. Instead of using thousands of sheets of paper, groups could set up secure computers with internet access for people to express their opinion. This method would cut down on costs, would be much faster and there would be instant information available as to how the public feels towards different bills allowing votes to be cast in the House and Senate that truly reflects the public opinion. There will surely be flaws and problems with this system but it is a step in the right direction. To work through these problems and flaws a non-partisan committee or group would oversee this project and promote truthful and ethical petitions. Some may argue that this is already done through polls, but this would be different. This could not be swayed one way or the other; it has a failsafe built-in in that each person is only allowed to e-sign their name one time and it would be much harder to exclude any specific political party.

To create a petition one would need to link their petition to the state database in order to sync Social Security numbers with residents wishing to sign the petition. The group or person starting the petition would then be responsible for putting the word out to the public. There would still be a requirement for the number of signatures.

MAKING YOUR VOICE HEARD

Educating yourself on what the government is doing is the first step to getting involved. Use any and all available resources to stay up to date with what is going on, with how your tax dollars are being spent. If there is proposed legislation that you agree with or do not agree with it is important that you make whoever is representing you, regardless of who you voted for, know your opinion. To find your local Senator and Representative you can visit, http://www.scottriding.com/utahlegislators/. You can find phone numbers and e-mails and much more information about those representing you. Don’t hesitate to send an email or make a phone call. Open the Doors to Your Government; Make Your Voice Heard. Our government was founded on the statement “For the People, By the People.” We are all the people there fore we need to make our government work for us not against us.

Works Cited

Governor Herbert: Repeal and Replace HB477 Mar 21 2011

http://www.utah.gov/governor/news_media/article.html?article=4479

Rubio, Marco “$120,000 will be spent by taxpayers on Charlie Crist’s political photo-op special session.” Friday, July 9th, 2010 in a press release

http://www.politifact.com/florida/statements/2010/jul/14/marco-rubio/rubio-says-special-session-120000-photo-op-crist/

 

The Senate Site. HB477 Why Reverse GRAMA?

 

http://www.senatesite.com/home/hb477/

 

Loftin, Josh; Associated Press. Christensen, Jennie; Cache Valley Daily. March 21st, 2011

 

http://www.cachevalleydaily.com/news/local/Utah-Gov-calls-special-session-on-open-records-118412344.html

 

Image of closed doors.

 

http://www.vote29.com/newmyblog/archives/16467

 

Who Represents Me in the State Capitol?

 

http://www.scottriding.com/utahlegislators/

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