POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

Utah lawmakers target open meetings, public records access

Feb 15, 2024, 4:20 PM | Updated: Feb 16, 2024, 12:08 pm

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FILE: The Capitol is pictured in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. (Kristin Murphy,/Deseret News)

(Kristin Murphy,/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A First Amendment and media attorney in Salt Lake City said he’s never seen so many bills targeting open meetings and access to public records in Utah as he is seeing in the 2024 legislative session. 

Jeff Hunt, a partner with Parr Brown, represents the Utah Media Coalition, which includes KSL NewsRadio. He said two acts in particular appear to be in the line of fire in the 2024 session. 

GRAMA, the Government Records Access and Management Act, and the Open and Public Meetings Act, are Utah’s premier sunshine laws. They allow the public to observe the workings of their government,” Hunt said.

“Those two statutes are the fundamental architecture for open government in Utah.” 

GRAMA: Open records in Utah 

Hunt said he would have previously described GRAMA, the open records law in Utah, as one of the strongest in the country. 

“But the concern we have is that each session, we’re seeing more and more exceptions added to the act,” he said. 

Hunt described three bills currently under consideration that would provide exemptions either to GRAMA or to the Open and Public Meetings Act as indicative of the trend. 

“There is a bill that would make the water usage of government golf courses, public golf courses, non-public information under our open records statute. Currently, we get that kind of data and it’s very helpful to the public, especially with the concern over water usage here in Utah and the depletion of the Great Salt Lake. There’s been a lot of public focus on water usage, both private and public. And this bill would actually make that kind of information off-limits to the public,” he said. 

A different bill would limit the public’s access to name, image and likeness agreements involving student-athletes at public universities.

Related: Bill to block public access to NIL contracts advances in Utah Legislature

Hunt pointed out that the students would not have that platform without the universities. And, he added, universities already review contracts to make sure they comply with all rules and regulations.

“So you got the government actually regulating the content of these name, image and likeness deals, but there’s no public oversight over that under this bill,” he said. 

The third bill he highlighted involves the definition of public bodies. 

“There’s a bill being run that would [create the Water District Water Development Council,] not a public body under the open meetings act, so those are just three examples, and there’s many more where the public is being cut out of observing the conduct of the public’s business by government,” Hunt said. 

Why transparency matters in government

Primarily, organizations like KSL pay attention to changes made to open records rules in Utah and the Open and Public Meetings Act because it affects our ability to cover government actions. However, Hunt points out that the impact goes far beyond local media. 

“These sunshine statutes that Utah has are designed to protect the rights of the public, so that the public can have open, transparent and accountable government. And often it is the media that shows up and covers these public bodies or asks for the records, and they’re a conduit for that information and reporting it to the public,” he said.

“But the foundation of these rights is for the public. And so, when the government or legislature creates these exceptions and reduces the public’s ability to have transparent and open government, it’s really the public that’s being harmed.” 

Hunt encouraged Utahns to ask their state representatives to weigh in on transparency in government and open records and meetings. 

“We’re just seeing a record number of bills this session that restrict the right of the public to access government records and government meetings. That’s a very disturbing trend,” Hunt said. 

The session ends March 1.  

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Utah lawmakers target open meetings, public records access