Mero Moment: Grama And Transparency

This week I want to talk about government transparency and the Utah state Legislature. For some time now I’ve been toying with the idea of producing a reality show about politics in Utah. I would open up my office at Sutherland Institute and record the day-to-day interactions during a legislative session so that Utahns could get an insider’s look at how policy and politics operate. It seems like a fun idea. But then the obvious part of this plan overwhelms its innovation – put a camera on legislators and lobbyists and it’ll feel as if we went back in time to silent movies. Nobody would say anything.

Politics has been described as sausage making – a lot goes into it and nobody really wants to see it being made. Most policy making is done behind closed doors and in private conversations. The public always has an opportunity for input, but unless a citizen is really engaged in legislative processes and connected to actual policy makers, that input is often too little too late. That’s not to say our processes are bad or dysfunctional. They actually work pretty well, all things considered. But like with any other system of decision making, our legislative processes can be abused if good people don’t look to their better selves to maintain the integrity of those processes.

The reason my legislative reality show won’t work is the same reason that so many of our productive legislative discussions happen behind closed doors: Politics and policy making simply aren’t pretty. We debate and argue and cuss and accuse others of wrongdoing and lying and manipulation. We float stupid ideas along with the good ones and we have to feel as if the environment is safe to be as stupid as we are brilliant at times. We’re human! We don’t like being embarrassed. We want to be right all of the time, or at least we want to look as if we’re right all of the time. We want to be seen in the best light and, frankly, that’s not a bad thing. Nobody likes people who constantly air their dirty laundry and shortcomings. They’re annoying. We like to be around smart, confident, articulate, attractive people. Again, that’s very human.

The 2011 state Legislature just passed changes to Utah’s open access law called the Government Records Access and Management Act, or simply GRAMA. Under GRAMA, a citizen could request certain information from an elected official or government agency and that official or agency would provide the information if they have it. GRAMA is important to a free society because shedding light on political, administrative, and policy processes keeps everyone honest.

The recent changes by the Legislature limited the scope of information that legislators would have to share. Specifically, legislators have said that they don’t feel as if they should have to share information that is equivalent to a “contemporaneous conversation,” meaning any electronic communication that serves as a substitute for an actual conversation. The best example of this would be texting from a cell phone.

Open access extremists would like to mic-up legislators 24-7 to hear everything they say all of the time. In essence, they want the state Legislature to turn into a new reality show. But, as I mentioned, that’s simply not possible because it’s human nature to avoid embarrassment, so legislators would simply stay quiet rather than risk embarrassment. Nothing would get done if everyone had access to every conversation regarding politics and policy. Of course, those same open access extremists would no more subject themselves to such sunlight as they would take a moment to consider that they’re wrong about anything.

My question is this: What is the difference between two legislators talking privately about a bill and those same two legislators saying the same things to each other except through a series of text messages? In this day and age, isn’t texting simply an often convenient way to talk to one another? So if an actual conversation isn’t covered by GRAMA, why should a text message be covered?

An email, for me anyway, is a bit different. An email isn’t usually intended to be a “contemporaneous conversation.” An email is more like writing a letter. But texting and instant messaging are exactly “contemporaneous conversations.” And why should those conversations be exposed to public scrutiny?

If you believe in the democratic process, you’ll understand that some conversations need to remain private for anything to get done.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.
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