Now that the legislative session is over, Utah lawmakers have been converted to the religion of government openness. Less than a month after passing HB 477, a government secrecy bill that might have originally been crafted by Moammar Gadhafi, several legislators who voted for the bill are now professing that they have always been in favor of open government.
The truth is, most local and state officials like open meetings about as much as Congress cares about balanced budgets.
After working as a journalist in the Midwest and in Utah, my personal opinion is that if there is any possible way for elected officials to conduct public business in secret, they will eagerly do so. For a time, one ingenious city council used to include all its action items on an agenda only available to council members. During meetings there were no discussions. Instead, the mayor would ask council member to vote on agenda item number three, or agenda item number five, etc. It took the threat of legal action to get them to comply with open meetings laws.
In Utah public bodies are allowed to go into closed sessions to discuss the sale or purchase of property or the hiring and firing of public employees. Any actual votes on these matters must then be made in open session. One school board I used to cover adjourned to lengthy executive sessions at almost every meeting for one of the reasons specified, but no land was ever bought or sold and no employees were ever hired or fired.
HB477 allows officials to keep secret electronic communications like emails and text messages. It also makes it much more expensive for anyone who requests copies of certain official documents. In an age when so much business is conducted electronically this bill takes the spirit of open meetings back to the Stone Age.
Open meetings subject the actions of elected official to public scrutiny and the criticism that can result. It’s like throwing Holy Water on vampires. They would prefer to avoid it at all costs.
Just as disturbing as the content of HB477 is the way that it was passed. It was brought before the legislature in the waning hours of the session and passed with little discussion.
State lawmakers might bristle at the comparison, but their action is reminiscent of a long history of fascists, communists, kings, emperors, dictators, and other evil leaders who sought to govern in darkness and secrecy. It is completely at odds with the principles of a democratic society.
It isn’t surprising that the response by the media and the public has been loud and angry. Hearing the outcry, elected officials are backpedaling and taking about the possibility of repealing this law. It is the very least they can do.
As a member of the voting public, the biggest question on my mind is how any democratic leader in the United States could ever create or vote for a bill like this to begin with.