How a bill un-becomes a law — people power derails Utah’s FOI railroad

The speed with which Utah’s legislators dismantled one of the nation’s best public-records laws was breathtaking. The speed with which they reversed course was astonishing.

When Detroit cranks a lemon off the assembly line, they recall it — and that’s exactly what Salt Lake City did Monday with House Bill 477. The rare “recall” procedure yanks the bill back from Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk, where it had been sent Friday in a hasty maneuver intended to minimize the opportunity for public opposition to organize.

That didn’t work so good.

By mid-day Monday, more than 1,000 people — and remember, this is Utah we’re talking about, not California — had signed an online petition calling on Gov. Herbert to veto the bill. National open-government experts were comparing the condition of Utah’s open-government laws — after being run over by the HB 477 railroad — unfavorably with Mexico’s.

HB 477 drastically rolled back transparency in state and local government by, among other changes, categorically declaring that government officials’ calendars and electronic messages were off-limits to disclosure, and by reversing the presumption that instructs judges to err on the side of openness over secrecy if there is a close call.

According to media reports, Gov. Herbert warned legislative leaders Monday that he was considering a veto. Rather than butt heads with a governor of their own party and embarrass him (or themselves) with a vote to override, top lawmakers made a Mubarak-like reversal.

Using the seldom-seen recall maneuver, legislators un-did their approval vote and amended the bill to push its effective date back to July 1, giving the public time to have the input that last week’s pedal-to-the-metal vote denied them. Changes may be taken up in a special legislative session.

This is, of course, not a time for defenders of Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) to relax. A diagnosis that you’re going to drop dead on July 1 is better than tomorrow, but it’s still pretty bad news.

But for a moment, let’s celebrate a system of government that works — not always right away, sure, but eventually — and the power of informed and passionate citizens that can make it so. It was a tiny and bloodless revolution, and while it’s tempting to attribute Monday’s events to the undeniable power of Facebook’s immediacy, the essential ingredient was old-fashioned legal knowledge. It is empowering to be equipped with an instantaneous self-publishing platform, but it is doubly so when you have something well-informed to say.