A man carries a sign that many ralliers echoed in the Utah State Capitol rotunda on Tuesday afternoon. Signs in the crowd mostly accused lawmakers of trying to cover up public information by passing House Bill 477.
What is probably the most controversial bill that went through the legislature this year was signed by Utah Governor Gary Herbert on Tuesday night, despite a large rally at the capitol building earlier in the day by citizen advocate groups that asked him not to.
The move came after the bill was recalled in unusual fashion from the governor's desk on Monday by both the House and the Senate, and amended to make the law take effect July 1, 2011 instead of immediately upon application of his signature.
"With HB477 now amended, the delayed implementation date allows us to have an open public process with robust, deliberate engagement by the public, the media and lawmakers," said Herbert. "Our goal is open and transparent government. This bill provides a way to find the right balance between the public's right to know and the personal privacy of both constituents and policymakers, while protecting taxpayer dollars."
But detractors of the bill were appalled that he signed it so fast after comments from his office and the legislature the last two days concerning looking at all the stakeholders' points of view before going ahead. Reportedly many legislators had talked to the Governors office on Monday about having their names pulled off the bill. Comments on social networking sites on the Internet ranged from fiery to sad when they heard about the signature being applied to the document.
"I am just numb," stated Joel Campbell, a journalism professor at BYU who worked for years as a reporter at the Deseret News. "I started my FOI career calling out the secrecy of a local city council about 25 years ago in Utah. I watched as we spent two years creating a very good law and have battled incursions almost every year since in the Legislature. At the rally (on Tuesday), the editor who first hired me and now runs a political newsletter said this is largest grassroots movement he has seen spring up in the state in such a short time. He said he doesn't think this could translate into an issue that could unseat the governor. I hope he is wrong. Many are talking a ballot initiative to overturn this."
The rally on Tuesday was filled with signs from citizens who think the law was passed to keep stories like the I-15 $13 million payoff out of the media. Some to the signs said things like "What are you hiding?" and "Jimmer loves GRAMA." Between one and two hundred people showed up, but organizers expect a lot more at a flashlight rally that will be held on Thursday night at the statehouse.
During the rally people spoke about the unfairness of the law, but more worried about the way it was quickly passed and pushed through the legislature. Some legislators were even quoted as saying that they wanted it through fast so that it wouldn't "fester" and passed during a non-election year so the media couldn't use it against them.
The recall of the bill off the governor's desk was one of many unusual things that occurred in the short public history of the legislation. During its 48 hour trip through both houses, it was presented in two very unusual committee meetings, and flew through the legislature in very quick fashion. Christine Watkins, the State Representative from District 69, said that she originally put her name on the bill because she did not understand what it was. She took it off before the vote in the house.
"Yesterday (Monday), the representative who asked me to put my name as a sponsor on the bill told me that he was sorry," Watkins told the Sun Advocate on Tuesday morning in a phone call. "He actually admitted that he had tricked me into putting my name on it."
It was also learned on Tuesday that the concerns that the legislature and local governments had with being inundated by media requests for information were formulated on false pretenses. Since the beginning of the legislative session, up until the bill was introduced, there had only been eight GRAMA requests. Since the bill was filed there have been over 20. In addition, it was learned that over 70 percent of the GRAMA requests filed in the state in the last year came from private citizens or citizen groups, not the media.
The Governor said in his remarks that the state was ready to talk with all stakeholders about their concerns when he signed the bill. When House speaker Becky Lockhart was asked about those coming discussions on FOX 13 news on Monday night, she said the legislature was willing to listen to the stakeholders about the bill. When the reporter asked about the legislature making compromise, she laughed, and didn't answer right away. The reporter told her it was a fair question and put the microphone back up to her. "Well it's the same thing. It's willing to sit down and listen to everybody who is interested in this issue," she said.
Organizations who stand against changing the law or modifying it greatly have talked about everything from civil disobedience to putting together a referendum on the issue. Many of the forces who support the present law and have come literally out of the woodwork over what has transpired in the last week gives those that want to save the present law hope.
"The only silver lining to all of this is the large group of citizens who have been energized online and attended a rally today at the Capitol," said Campbell. "While I felt alone most of the past 25 years in my FOI (Freedom of Information) work, I felt there is truly a large group of citizens who care today."