Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Gondola records lawsuit shows policy reforms needed

The Ogden Sierra Club recently announced the final settlement of its four-year legal battle with the city over access to a variety of records related to the gondola proposal. I (Dan Schroeder) was the Club’s lead volunteer in this lawsuit, and this dispute was one of many incidents that motivated the formation of the Ogden Ethics Project.

The Ogden Ethics Project is neutral on the gondola idea but we are strong advocates of open government. In this particular incident, the Ogden City Attorney’s office demonstrated a troubling obsession with secrecy, attempting to stretch Utah’s open records law to exempt far too many public records from disclosure. This obsession even extended to several records that contained no significant information at all. Still more troubling was the decision of the volunteer Records Review Board to uphold the city attorney’s classification of every single record—more than 40 in total.

Two of the planks in the Ogden Ethics Project platform would help resolve these kinds of disputes far more quickly, with far less expense:
  • Broaden the representation on the city’s Records Review Board to include citizen and media advocates—not just government insiders.
  • Allow denied GRAMA requests to be appealed to the State Records Committee.
If either of these reforms had been in place four years ago, it’s unlikely that this case ever would have gone to court.

Further reforms may also be possible. Utah may create a training program for government records officers, and Ogden could then require its staff and/or Records Review Board members to go through such a program. The city could also adopt policies to encourage its attorneys, when reviewing public records requests, to interpret exemptions narrowly and to represent the interests of the city as a whole rather than just those of one particular branch of government.

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