GRAMA Answers – A First Pass

I really appreciated the 36 questions that came out of the first meeting of the GRAMA working group and wanted to offer one perspective on a first pass at answering those questions. I will say upfront that the answers provided here are subject to modification or revision based upon more detailed information. Consider this the legislative intent or deliberative process version of any final answers. Before answering the questions I wanted to make one related comment.

When I saw that Common Cause was running a full page ad in the Salt Lake Tribune today calling for the repeal of HB 477 I worried that they were positioning themselves to take some credit after it gets repealed tomorrow (and it will). As citizens we need to be careful in our consumption of information. We need to make sure that we are not fooled by the claims of any interest group. Common Cause appears to be using this situation to help them jump start the reopening of their Utah chapter. I don’t know whether that will be a good thing in the long run or not – I don’t know much about the group – but we should not confuse their core advocacy for open government with any significant work to get this repealed. It was the uproar by the citizens of Utah that brought about this legislative reversal, not the political astuteness of some interest group.

Now, on to the questions:

  1. Is there any reasonable expectation of privacy for an elected official? If yes, what should be private? What should be public? Not unless the person was elected against their will. They chose to be a public figure and should expect that their actions are under public scrutiny because they have the opportunity to make public policy.
  2. Does it make a difference if an elected official uses a publicly funded or a privately funded device? Not at all.
  3. When are the personal notes of a government official public records? Anytime they have any connection to their office or to anything voters might consider relevant in deciding whether to continue supporting them as an officeholder.
  4. What personal records of an elected official should be protected, and what should be public? Should a government official be required to release personal notes created solely for his or her own use? If so, what constitutes a personal note? Does the form matter (handwritten, diaries, appointment books, computer files)? Does it matter if those notes are or are not related to policy or government duties? This gets to the heart of this issue. I’m not sure there is a clearcut or lasting answer to this question. Some things are clear though, any record created for their personal use and not shared with others or related to policy or government duties ought to be considered private. The form of those notes only matters insofar as the form may be used to help define of the note was considered to have been shared.
  5. Is there a difference between a digital conversation and a digital record? How should channels of communication like text messages, IMs, Email, video chat, Twitter DMs, Facebook Messages and voice mail be considered under the GRAMA statute? The difference between a digital conversation and a digital record is whether the medium is designed to be preserved or discarded. Digital records such as blog posts are designed to be preserved while digital conversations such as twitter are not (just see how easy it is to retrieve or search old tweets, it’s not nearly as reliable as old blog posts). The default assumption on the part of government should be to preserve where possible. Holders of government office need to realize that the more information people have the more likely they are to agree with their elected officials. Those in favor of open government already realize that officeholders tend to make reasonable official positions in direct proportion to the amount of information they share with the public.
  6. How should we categorize the increasing new channels of electronic communication as they arise? Categorizing is not as important as retaining the default assumption of “preserve where possible.”
  7. Who owns the records? The elected official, the elected body, or the company that provides the electronic forum? I.e. Facebook, Twitter? Who should archive these records? For formal meetings and conversations the elected body owns the record. For informal settings the elected official owns the conversation. In all cases the owner is responsible for archiving records where possible. The better they do the more prepared they will be to respond to watchdog groups who already archive anything they feel they can use.
  8. Who should pay the real costs for searching and producing these records? the owner of the information should pay the costs of archiving the record while the person requesting access should pay the costs of searching and reproducing the records.
  9. Does a citizen have an expectation of privacy when they contact their elected official? Only if their contact is unrelated to policy or government function.
  10. Should records that contain information about a person’s health be protected? Generally yes.
  11. Should personal Email addresses be classified as protected records?Yes.
  12. Should a lobbyist have any expectation of privacy when they contact an elected official? No.
  13. The more complicated the rules for privacy become, the more complex and expensive the legal review in responding to records requests will be. Who should pay these costs? First, the rules should be simplified as much as possible. Second, the requestor of the information should generally pay those costs of compliance.
  14. Should the GRAMA statute contain intent language? If so, should the intent language be allowed to trump the actual text of the code? Intent language only opens the door for inconsistency of interpretation. If the text of the code alone produces results different than the intent of the legislature then the code should be altered. The intent should be included in the discussion when creating and debating the text of the code.
  15. Currently, GRAMA does not address which party has the burden of proof on an appeal to show that the public interest in disclosing a record outweighs the record’s private or protected status. Who should bear this burden of proof? If the legislature feels that information disclosure is in the public interest they should proactively make it available. The burden of proof when someone wants protected information made public should reside with the requestor.
  16. What protections should be afforded to the internal and deliberative processes in the three different branches of government? With the possible exception of judicial deliberations, the common sense of office holders should be such that their deliberations should be able to withstand public scrutiny. Likewise the public should be astute enough to figure out how much credence to give to anything that occurs during the deliberative process.
  17. Is there any situation in which a deliberative process should be protected? Should private creative brainstorming play any role in the policy-making process? In the legislative and executive branches at least creative brainstorming should be part of the process but it need not be private.
  18. Should the governor & legislature be allowed to discuss policy issues with staff in private before they take a public policy position? After a bill is passed or policy is made public, does this protection remain or open up retroactively? Yes, they should be allowed to have private discussions with staff before taking a public position but those discussions should be made available to public scrutiny once the position has been taken.
  19. Should elected officials’ discussions with their staff be presumed to be protected or presumed to be open? Under what conditions should elected officials’ communications with staff be presumed to be private? They might have a temporary protected status while choosing a public position. The only time they should be presumed private is when those communications are related to the staffing itself rather than any government function (in other words communications about people joining or leaving the staff may be presumed to be private).
  20. Is there a time-frame equation that could be useful in making information public? I.e. records presumed protected for a certain amount of time, then presumed public. it would be perfectly reasonable for a record to be presumed protected for the length of time it takes to review the record and correct any obvious mistakes.
  21. Should any person or organization be given a special exemption from fees associated with a GRAMA request? No.
  22. If the request requires the review or search of a large number of records, extensive redacting or other work, legal review, or technical expertise, who should be required to cover the cost of the request? The requestor.
  23. Should we revise the current GRAMA policy of not charging for the first 15 minutes spent to fulfill a request? Not unless there is some agreement on a longer period for free initial effort.
  24. Should the wise use of taxpayers’ funds be part of the assessment equation when assessing fees? In other words, should governments have the ability to waive fees if it is in the public’s best interest? Yes.
  25. Should the audit records of the State Auditor and Legislative Auditor General be protected if their disclosure would interfere with an audit, investigation, or internal procedures? Yes.
  26. Should attorneys representing a taxpayer-funded government entity have the same protections as attorneys representing private entities when creating documents or having communication about reasonably anticipated litigation? Probably.
  27. Should records relating to fiscal notes on legislation be protected until the legislation has passed or the session has ended? How about protected until the legislation reaches the floor for debate or the session ends – whichever comes first.
  28. What role does private communication among elected officials, constituents, and interested parties play in formulating good policy? What effect would classifying a record public or private records have on the legislative process? Private communication has no advantages in forming good policy, only in forming bad policy. When records are classified as public it serves as a deterrent to foot in mouth disease.
  29. What role should our legislature’s part time status play in the classification of information? Their part time status means that whatever they do in their employment outside the legislature should receive the same protections as any other employee unless it has some connection to government function or policy.
  30. Looking forward, how can we automate the legislative process of archiving records and properly making them available? That is a technical question and a technical answer is outside the scope of what I would try to address here even if I were qualified to do so.
  31. How does the decentralized and geographically dispersed structure of the legislative branch affect record production and storage of records? It has little bearing in our digital age.
  32. Is there a defining line or equation we could use to discern between the private life and public life of a elected official? Is there a same or similar line that would also work for a governor, citizen, activist, lobbyist, media representative or a government employee? The simple line is that before they declare their intent to run is their private life and after they are no longer a candidate or officeholder is also private life. Everything else is public life. For all others their life is public to the degree that they affect or seek to affect public policy.
  33. Is there a role for confidential discussions in the deliberative process in the different branches of the government? I don’t see how this question differs from questions 16, 17, & 18.
  34. Given recent advances in technology we have experienced an exponential increase in the volume of potential records available, and a concurrent increase in demand for those records. Given the reality of limited government resources, how should this workload be managed? Along with the volume and demand for records brought on by technology we also have an increase in the capacity of technology to help manage the records and consequently the workload. Is there actually a greater demand on resources or has technology already compensated for the theoretical extra burden of extra records and extra demand? If there is more burden on government resources the demand will be managed if the cost of record retrieval is paid by the requestor.
  35. What technological advances do you foresee over the next 10 years that will effect how we might archive and access public records? The ability to archive and access records will probably improve at least as fast as the number and type of records increases but I can’t guess what changes the next 10 years will bring. Perhaps the legislature should be required to periodically review GRAMA and determine if changes have become warranted.
  36. What further policy questions should we consider as we bring GRAMA into the next century? No further questions your honor.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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