By Christine Osborne
“Government records belong to the citizens of the state, who have a legal right to open and fair access.” – Utah’s GRAMA and Open Government website
March 11-17, 2018 was Sunshine Week, a nationwide celebration of the benefits of open access to public information to citizens, communities, and government. Utah held its own celebration on March 13, 2018, at a conference hosted by the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) takes transparency in government seriously by ensuring the public has access to agency records, its records officers are trained and certified, and information is readily available on its website. DEQ was well represented at the conference: Executive Assistant Jenny Potter sat on a six-member panel, and six records officers from DEQ either attended or listened online.
Why Transparency Matters
“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” – Justice Louis Brandeis
Openness and transparency lead to greater governmental accountability, the free flow of information in the public interest, and a better-informed populace. Speakers at the Sunshine Week conference emphasized the importance of proper records management, the fundamental right of the public to access public records as defined by law, and the many benefits to society from this access, including better government decision-making, improved public understanding of this decision-making, increased governmental accountability, and increased public trust.
How the State of Utah Ensures Transparency
“Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.” – President Abraham Lincoln
Utah’s commitment to transparency and openness dates back to the establishment of the Division of State Archives in the late 1960’s, but the state took a huge leap forward in 1991 when it passed the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). The law:
- Promotes the public’s right to easy and reasonable access to unrestricted public records.
- Specifies the conditions under which the public interest in allowing restrictions on access to
records may outweigh the public’s interest in access.
- Provides guidelines for both disclosure and restrictions on access to government records.
Most importantly, it favors public access and establishes fair and reasonable records management practices.
Other state laws ensure citizens have easy access to public records, including the following:
- Public Records Management Act (PRMA)
Outlines records management responsibilities for all government entities
- Uniform Electronic Transactions Act
Validates the use of electronic records and signatures
- Open and Public Meetings Act
Outlines requirements for open and public meetings and records
- Technology Governance Act (Public Notice website)
Outlines requirements for public notices posted on the Public Notice Website
Every year, it gets easier to find, retrieve, and request government information. The Open Government website, for example, lets you:
- Submit a GRAMA records request on the Open Records Portal. Search by city and town, county, state agency, K-12 education, transit district, special service district, local district, and interlocal governmental entities.
- Check out how these same government entities spend taxpayer dollars on the Utah Public Finance Website.
- View all financial disclosure reports and statements of organization for candidates, political action committees, political issues committees, corporations, electioneers, political parties, and labor organizations at disclosures.utah.gov.
- Access a large collection of publicly available, reusable data sets at Utah Data.
How DEQ Ensures Transparency
“We act with integrity and make accurate and reliable information available to the public.” – DEQ Values Statement
Utah’s environment is important to the health and well-being of all residents, and DEQ believes the public should be able to access environmental information quickly and easily. The agency usually responds to GRAMA requests within three to five days — well below the 10-day limit established under the law. GRAMA records officers at DEQ receive training and certification to ensure the proper handling of records and records requests. Sometimes a quick phone call or email from a member of agency staff can answer the question or point the requestor to the location of the information on the website.
DEQ also serves as a proactive source of information. For example, DEQ:
- Created the UtahAir App so residents could access real-time air-quality conditions on their Android or iPhone mobile devices.
- Developed a harmful algal bloom (HABs) webpage that provides the public with the latest information on bloom conditions and advisories.
- Assembled a database for test results from lead sampling in schools
The agency also creates webpages on “hot topics” to provide background information, links to relevant documents and data, FAQ’s, and fact sheets — all to ensure that the public has the information it needs when it needs it.
DEQ scans its documents into an electronic records database known as eDocs. Many of these documents can be found through the department’s EZ Search or Interactive Map. From data on mercury in fish tissue to the location of brownfields to compliance records for hazardous waste facilities to air-quality source emissions — the public has access to a wealth of information, data sets, and agency actions from these two databases.
We’re always looking for ways to enhance our service to the public, including improved access to agency documents. Transparency isn’t just something we talk about at DEQ; it’s our way of doing business.
The fastest way to file a GRAMA request with DEQ is through the Open Records Portal. Select the “Request Records” button, fill out the online form (including a detailed description of the records you want), then click “Submit.” Most requests qualify for a fee waiver; generally, if the request would be costly and labor intensive, a records officer will contact you to help narrow down your request. To review your submission and track the progress of your request, click on Records Requests.
I am a content strategist/communication specialist at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. I have a Masters in Strategic Communication (MSC) degree from Westminster College and earned my Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). I currently teach Integrated Marketing Communication to graduate students in the MSC program at Westminster. In a previous life, I was a bassoonist with the Utah Symphony for 26 years. I love to hike, bike, camp, read, garden, geek out on all things science, and spend time with two college-age sons. I volunteer with a number of local refugee organizations and am currently a teen mentor with the 4-H New American Goat Club and Teen Leadership Club.