The fight over the Legislature’s attempt to circumvent the Government Records Access and Management Act, and the ultimate repeal of the last-minute bill, took a lot of effort on the part of many people. A lot of the credit needs to go to the state media for letting citizens know about this attempt to hide what goes on in our state government, and consequently building support to establish a committee to evaluate the present laws and work to modify them appropriately to change how we get information in the 21st century.
But the fight will go on, even though that particular bill was defeated. There will always be those who want to restrict what gets out to the public, despite the fact it is the citizens’ right to know about the goings-on in their government.
However, there is some residual hangover concerning the fight last winter, and not all of it is political. Some of it is financial.
While the grassroots rallied to come to the Capitol and let legislators see first-hand what the public opposition to the changes were, and people sent thousands of emails and texts to senators and representatives about the way things were headed, behind the scenes, lawyers from a number of different law firms toiled to get the bill pulled. They also did valuable legal work for the media and other groups to keep us all on track about what needed to be done. Some also testified at hearings and helped us to lobby for pulling the bill and coming up with more open and reasonable meetings in which to discuss modifications of GRAMA that would satisfy everyone.
Many folks from the media donated a lot of time to this cause, and some gave a lot of money. After all, fighting something like this isn’t free. The legal bills racked up by lawyers doing work on the project came in at between $80,000 to $100,000. That may sound like a lot, but in reality the law firms that worked on helping the media with the process discounted their costs considerably.
As Utah Press Association president at the time, I was in the middle of this and I think they could have charged us at least twice as much for the time spent on the effort. Out of public service they felt they needed to be involved, yet they still have a business to run, and staff to pay in doing so. So what they have charged is not unreasonable.
That bill, from last spring, has largely been paid by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News. They actually came up with more than two-thirds of the money to pay for those fees. Other newspapers also contributed, including your local paper, although our donation was small, indeed, when compared to the big two.
Recently, we have been asking community papers to pay a little more, based on their paid circulation, and a number have responded. Being one of those deeply involved in the process of trying to get the legal team paid, I have great admiration for Dean Singleton, publisher and Nancy Conway, editor of the Tribune and Clark Gilbert, publisher, and Rick Hall, editor, of the Deseret News for committing so much time and money to helping us turn back the tide.
However, what has frustrated me is the attitude of the electronic media in this state, particularly the televisions stations based in Salt Lake City. As of this date, as far as I know, they have not contributed one penny to paying these legal fees. They loved the story, and ran numerous reports about the entire GRAMA bill process, which certainly helped bring grassroots support that aided in repealing the bill. But as soon as the story was done they were “outta there.” They made a lot of hay about their part in the repeal, in getting the word out, but many of the newspapers in the state did as much or more, and many of them were able to contribute just a little to the coffers.
The fight over GRAMA is not over. Bills will be introduced in the coming years that will attempt to weaken your right to know and newspapers will be right there fighting to keep that from happening. But just as before, we will need legal help to do it and no one can expect these law firms to just do their work for free.
There will be more costs.
People say newspapers are dying; we in the industry know that is not true. We are changing based on market demand, but we are not dying. However, let’s say tomorrow all newspapers went away in Utah. The televisions stations would report on the GRAMA legislation that went on when we were gone. But who would pay for the legal costs to make sure things were kept on track so you can know what is happening in your government? The broadcasters?
Obviously, based on their past performance, they wouldn’t.
Richard Shaw is the publisher of the Sun Advocate and the Emery Progress newspapers and is based in Price, Utah.