‘More secrecy’: Utah lawmakers advance bills targeting government transparency

Feb 22, 2024, 7:55 PM | Updated: Feb 23, 2024, 9:56 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns won’t get answers to several big questions if a series of bills attacking government transparency pass in the final week of the 2024 Legislature.

Those missing answers include how much money is flowing through public universities to sponsorship deals for college athletes in the state, along with the time and thought a would-be group puts into securing water for Utah’s future.

“The prevailing trend at the Legislature this year has been in the direction of more secrecy,” said First Amendment attorney David Reymann. “What’s been uncommon this year has just been the sheer number of bills that try to put more of the government’s work behind closed doors.”

One of those bills, SB240, is a direct response to KSL’s ongoing legal battle to see Attorney General Sean Reyes’s work calendar. Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, wants to make all public officials’ calendars secret.

He’s characterizing the change as a clarification of existing law and not a shift in policy, saying it’s needed after a state panel ordered the Utah Attorney General’s Office to turn over the file to the KSL Investigators last year.

“We believe the records committee got it wrong,” Bramble said.

Separately, top legislative leaders are pitching a plan in SB211 to create a new water development council and allow the panel to do its work behind closed doors.

“They can talk about whatever they want in a closed meeting, and the public is denied the right to even know what they’re doing on an issue,” Reymann said. “They just want to be exempt from public transparency altogether, and that’s a big concern.”

When KSL asked for comment on that secrecy, bill sponsor Senate President Stuart Adams insisted, “that bill is transparent.”

After Utah journalists pushed to obtain public records, there’s been a pattern of moves by the Legislature to make them off-limits:

  • As the Deseret News fights in court to see how much money is flowing through public universities to athletes with sponsorship deals, the Legislature is advancing a bill, HB202, to keep every part of those “name, image, and likeness” contracts secret.
  • Following coverage of how much water Utah golf courses are using to stay lush and green in one of the nation’s driest states, another pending bill, SB195, seeks to keep reports about the volume of water flowing to public golf courses away from public scrutiny.
  • A 2022 law is keeping the public from seeing police officers’ statements to their own departments about why they used deadly force. The move followed the Salt Lake Tribune’s fight for these records in separate police shootings.

Reymann, who’s working on behalf of the Utah Media Coalition to oppose legislative attempts at reducing transparency, said this type of reaction is misplaced.

“The solution should not be to make that information not available to the public, it should be to fix what generated the criticism,” Reymann said. “Too often, there is a reaction by our Legislature that says, ‘We’re not going to try to fix the underlying problem, we’re just going to deny the public the ability to know whether there’s a problem in the future,’ and that is very dangerous for the cause of public accountability.”

When asked about these bills and the message Adams has for voters frustrated with them, Adams said, “Come to media availability,” referring to daily sit-downs he and other Senate leaders hold for journalists.

The Senate does not permit those without press credentials to attend these sessions at the Capitol, although it typically streams them online.

“I mean, we’re trying to be transparent,” Adams said. “It doesn’t feel good when someone says you’re not when you’re trying to be.”

Bramble chimed in too, emphasizing that separate from the issue of protecting public employees’ calendars, the same bill would make it easier for Utahns to recoup attorneys’ fees when they win certain records cases.

“Citizens have had to spend an extraordinary amount on legal fees to just get records that should be open to the public,” Bramble said. In 2011, lawmakers passed a sweeping overhaul that severely weakened Utah’s open records law. They backtracked and repealed that law after immense backlash from Utahns across the political spectrum.

“The only way that the public can really make a difference in situations like that is to let their legislators know they don’t approve of what they’re doing,” Reymann said. “That actually does make a difference.”

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‘More secrecy’: Utah lawmakers advance bills targeting government transparency