Protesters flood Utah statehouse as governor signs law restricting access to public records

By Stephen C. Webster
Wednesday, March 9, 2011 14:03 EDT
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The Utah statehouse was teeming with protesters last night, even as the governor put his signature on a new “transparency” law that would severely restrict public access to government records.

Citing in recent days a need to protect lawmakers’ and constituent privacy, the Utah legislature pounced on a bill that would restrict the public’s access to government records, passing it in record time and catching detractors off-guard.

Even as the public had just begin to mobilize against the legislation, the state’s governor announced last night that it was a done deal.

That wasn’t the news protesters were looking for last night when they gathered at the Capitol to demand Gov. Gary Herbert (R) veto the bill. He did not, but the rapid public backlash in days prior did cause Herbert did ask the legislature for a recall, triggering an amendment that would delay implementation of the laws until July 1.

Rapid response to the bill was coordinated largely on social media, with the League of Women Voters of Utah, Utahns for Ethical Government and other grassroots activists leading the charge. NBC affiliate KSL 5 TV in Salt Lake City noted that “over 100″ people showed up Tuesday night to ask the governor for a veto.

Activists said they planned another major rally on Thursday at 6 p.m.

“The bill was introduced on March 2 in the Utah House and two days later, it passed the Utah Senate. After that, it was lobbed to the governor’s desk with the expectation he will rubber-stamp it over the weekend,” wrote Salt Lake City Weekly columnist Jerre Wroble.

“For a bill to move with this much momentum, it must be about motherhood or apple pie, or perhaps an approaching apocalyptic danger– a no-brainer. Nothing of complexity should move this quickly without debate or input from the people.”

Lawmakers had been told that the bill, which amends Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act, would merely protect private details in constituent letters to their representatives. However, private communications between citizens and lawmakers, or even between public sector employees, is already protected by the current law.

In reality, the bill would essentially allow the state legislature to opt out of transparency requirements entirely. It would also exempt police follow-up reports, and reclassify a key legislative rules committee as a non-governmental entity. The state auditor is also exempted from open records rules, under the proposal.

Speaking to the station on Wednesday, Gov. Herbert said he did not expect the laws to take effect on July 1 in the present form and said he did not issue a veto because the legislature “had the numbers to override me.”

A call seeking comment from the League of Women Voters of Utah was not returned.

This video is from NBC affiliate KSL 5 TV in Salt Lake City, broadcast March 8, 2011.

Video Courtesy of KSL.com

This video is from ABC 4 Salt Lake City, broadcast March 8, 2011.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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