Privacy biggest concern with open records law

SALT LAKE CITY — Philosophical debates about elected officials’ privacy is the focus of a group that met for the first time today to make recommendations on Utah’s open records law.

The meeting came just two days before the Legislature is set to meet in special session to consider repealing a new open records law that exempts text messages from public scrutiny and increases the cost of records requests.

The 25 group members generally agreed that electronic forms of communication — including text messages, social media and email — present unforeseen challenges for government transparency. Those range from the massive volume of records available electronically to informal conversations happening on cell phones and computers paid for with taxpayer money.

Legislative members of the group said they don’t want to block access to public records, but they want privacy when it comes to their non-legislative duties.

“Public officials should expect that anything to do with the office would be made public. That’s fair. That’s appropriate,” said one member, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George. “But we want some sort of safe harbor” for private conversations, such as text messages from family members.

The easiest solution would be to make anything done on a device paid for with taxpayer money public, said Jesse Stay, a social strategy manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and professional blogger. Any exceptions should be limited and clearly defined.

“Anything done in the official capacity of a public official’s office and on a state-owned device ought to be public,” said Stay, also a member of the group.

But another member said such a rule would not capture all of the public communications and could actually hurt transparency. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers would have the option of using personal cellphones or email accounts to conduct business — allowing them to keep whatever information they wanted from becoming public.

The group will meet every Wednesday for at least the next month; their goal is to come up with recommendations for the Legislature on a new open records law. Members were appointed by legislative leadership and Gov. Gary Herbert and include legislators, government staffers, media representatives, bloggers and citizen activists.

The group was put together after public outcry about House Bill 477, which exempts text messages from public scrutiny and increases the cost of records requests.

The bill was signed into law earlier this month, but a special session of the Legislature is scheduled Friday to consider repealing it before it takes effect July 1. Herbert called the special session to repeal the law.



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