SALT LAKE CITY — Two years after Utah lawmakers drew public fury with a restrictive public records bill, some legislators are keeping up a reconciliation effort with bills to designed expand access to public records.
Lawmakers have introduced legislation to create online portals for legislative emails and other public records and to require agencies to waive records request fees in certain cases.
The push for transparency is a far cry from 2011, when the Legislature passed and then quickly repealed changes to the state's open records law that exempted text messages from public scrutiny and increased the cost of records requests.
After the bill was repealed, a group of lawmakers and representatives of the media and public interest groups held meetings to discuss potential changes to the state's open records law, some of which were passed last year.
Sen. Curt Bramble, who served on the panel, sponsored a bill this year that creates an online portal for lawmakers to voluntarily post their emails. The Provo Republican said the bill sprung from a dispute last year over redistricting emails from legislators.
Last fall, Democrats filed a lawsuit seeking all email and correspondence between lawmakers, the Republican Party and others regarding the redrawing of state and congressional districts. They were told they'd have to pay thousands of dollars to have the records retrieved, and Democrats sought to have the fee waived.
After a prolonged dispute, legislative leaders eventually posted 16,000 pages of documents online.
Bramble said if lawmakers were able to easily move their emails to a place such as his proposed portal, it would cut down costs and response time and enhance transparency.
The bill was unanimously approved by a committee last week and awaits debate by the full state Senate, which could happen early this week.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, is also tackling the records retrieval fees this session. King, who also served on the open records panel, introduced legislation requiring public agencies to waive the fees if the request was made in the public interest.
The law currently says that under those circumstances and others, the agency may waive the fee and is encouraged to do so. Far too often, King said, public offices will not waive the fee because they're not forced to.
King said the idea was floated during meetings of the open records panel and the Democrats' lawsuit last year was one factor that pushed him to sponsor the bill.
He said he's also concerned about large records fees faced by media outlets, which are seeking the documents in the public interest.
King's bill is pending in the Senate but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.