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Skeptics leary of Utah governor's call for FOIA law repeal

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  1. Freedom of Information
Utah's governor called for the repeal and replacement of a controversial open government law Monday, saying that signing it “resulted…

Utah's governor called for the repeal and replacement of a controversial open government law Monday, saying that signing it “resulted in a loss of public confidence,” yet some open government advocates said it was simply a political move.

H.B. 477 modifies aspects of the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act. It exempts certain types of communication, such as voice mails and text messages, from being turned over to the public, and many opponents say that it places a larger financial burden on those requesting records. It also provides that if a government official or agency anticipates the possibility of litigation as a result of turning over records, those records can be deemed protected.

In an opinion piece for The Salt Lake Tribune, Gov. Gary Herbert said that the legislature passed H.B. 477 in order to update the state’s open record law, but it did not give the legislation the public discussion it warranted.

Numerous freedom of information advocates, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called for Herbert to veto the bill after it passed in the state legislature. The governor signed the bill into law on March 8.

In his story for the Tribune, Herbert said that he intended to place limitations on the controversial legislation by signing the bill. He said that if he vetoed the bill originally, he would have faced a legislative override and it would have passed in its original form. By signing it, Herbert said that he was able to convince the legislature to amend it by delaying the implementation date to July 1 and opening the discussion of the bill to the public.

Herbert also called a special legislative session to repeal and redraft the bill, which is set for Friday.

Yet some media and open government advocates say that Herbert simply reacted to public pressure, and they worry that the bill that replaces H.B. 477 will have the same flaws.

Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, called the move a “bait and switch.”

“Everything we are hearing says their intent is to replace it with something that is equally bad, or worse,” Petersen said. “There is no real dialogue here, there is no real giving way to the will of the people — this is all politicking as usual.”

Petersen said that opponents of the bill are working on a referendum for H.B. 477.

The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.