By Jeremy Harris
Capital West News
Costly court appeals are a reality for many people seeking access to government records in Utah, but that might soon change.
A new measure being drafted at the State Capitol would give all appeals for public records the ability to have their case heard by the State Records Committee. Utah Attorney Jeff Hunt is working with Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, to write and present the bill during the current legislative session.
“It just doesn’t seem right that the very government body that denied you access is the one that’s going to be hearing your appeal,” Hunt said.
Current law mandates all state agencies to provide appellants with access to the State Public Records Committee, which offers a final say on appealed records requests. Cities, counties, school boards, and other political subdivisions, however, can create their own appeals process, giving them the final say. Some local governments have opted out of allowing records requestors to go to the State Records Committee, forcing them to either drop their appeal or pay for an attorney to appeal in district court.
“It can cost easily tens of thousands of dollars if you are in a court battle fighting a government entity trying to get access to information,” Hunt said. “For most folks, that just prices them out of access to government information.”
Local government advocates say they are watching the proposed legislation closely.
“Conceptually, we are always concerned about a ‘one size fits all’ approach from the state,” Utah League of Cities and Towns director of government relations Cameron Diehl, said. “I know many cities and towns default to the state GRAMA appeals process and may be unaffected by this proposed change, but several cities, including Salt Lake City and West Valley City, have their own GRAMA appeals process.”
Local governments would effectively lose the final say in the appeals process, and rely on the State Records Committee to decide access to their own records. Diehl says that is concerning.
“Additionally, the current State Records Committee does not have a municipal official currently serving on it, as the political subdivisions appointee is a county official. As such, in the cities with their own appeals process, they could lose an aspect of local control and local accountability,” Diehl said.
Diehl said league has a good working relationship with Bramble and looks forward to seeing the actual text of the bill once it is written.
Among the cities that would be affected by the change is West Valley City, which was recently the focus of a GRAMA appeals by Salt Lake Tribune reporters who were appealing for access to sealed documents in the shooting death of Danielle Willard.
West Valley City currently allows denied appeals to be heard by the city council, and in this particular case the city council voted to open their sealed records and give the reporters access.
”West Valley City is proud of its transparency efforts over the past few years. Our records are transparent with very few exceptions,” West Valley City director of strategic communications Sam Johnson, said.
Johnson also said that if changes were made to the GRAMA appeals process, the local governments would be relinquishing some of their power.
“We do believe that as the government closest to the people, we are in a position to fully understand the documents in question and their proper classifications,” Johnson said.
Advocates of the new legislation disagree.
“This will open up a new avenue of, essentially, judicial review,” University of Utah law professor Randy Dryer said. “It’s preferable to have a readily accessible, less expensive forum for citizens or news organizations that wish to challenge a denial of access to public records.”
Bramble said the bill would be a “good amendment to the GRAMA statute.”
Hunt, who was one of the original drafter of the GRAMA laws, and his associates operate a hotline for access to public records, public meetings and courts. They say many appellants call after being denied appeals at a local level. They say those appeals are the reason they want this change to the law.
“We routinely get calls from citizens that say ‘hey, they’re saying I have to go to court, is that true? And we say, ‘yeah, it is. They can make you go to court,’” Hunt said.