SALT LAKE CITY — A statewide audit of Utah's local governments, school districts and police agencies showed what some say is the obvious: Citizens in search of information can have a tough time getting it from the agencies their taxes pay for.
Overall the 135 agencies in the survey got a "B" grade for compliance with state open records laws. The audit was a project of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, part of an association of professional journalists.
City and county governments scored the best overall, followed by school districts. The worst offenders were some city police and county sheriff's offices, several of which received "F" grades for being the least cooperative.
"What we found generally is that it's not easy at all for the ordinary person to go in and get access to public information," said Linda Petersen, president of the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the foundation's parent organization. "You really have to know your way around the system, and that's not the intent of the law."
Utah Government Records Access and Management Act — or GRAMA, as it is known — has been in place for 15 years, but this was the first time agencies were rated for compliance, Petersen said.
The audit was conducted by university students under the direction of University of Utah communications professor Brian L. Massey.
Massey said he culled audit data from 26 other states to craft the methods used in the Utah study, including choosing the documents auditors asked for.
Students asked for expense reports of city mayors and county commission chairmen, employment contracts for school district superintendents, and daily dispatch logs for police departments and sheriff's offices.
Auditors used an A-to-F grading scale to assess attitude and compliance at each audited agency. In all auditors sought records at 37 cities, 25 police departments, 24 county commission offices, 25 sheriff's offices and 24 county school districts.
Grades for attitude were subjective, Massey noted, but the point scale for compliance was tied to specific actions. "A" grades were awarded to agencies that complied with the minimum standard of the law, responding within the allotted 10 days.
Agencies lost 0.6 points for any of the five following reasons: asking the auditor to provide identifying information beyond the requirements of GRAMA (name, mailing address and daytime phone number); asking for a driver's license as proof of identity; asking the purpose of the request or how the information would be used; charging a fee for document inspection; or if they sought permission or advice from supervisors before responding to the request.
Failing grades of "F" were awarded if the agency refused a GRAMA request or failed to offer an agency-generated request form.
"Maybe I'm being a little bit biased, but I think the study is probably skewed a bit," said Heber Police Chief Ed Rhoades, president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.
The Heber police department got an "incomplete" grade because its daily activity log is not kept on site. Rhoades said he and other police chiefs — all of whom learned about the audit from reporters working on stories about it — felt the audit grades were unfair.
GRAMA gives no consideration to police officers’ privacy concerns, Rhoades said. And getting docked points for asking why an auditor is seeking the document is bothersome, he added.
"I'm not so sure asking why you want it isn't an issue of saying maybe I can’t help this citizen faster," he said. "So I think there are concerns there."
The Society of Professional Journalists is the "first to admit the study is not scientific," Petersen said, but nonetheless shows what citizens can expect when they walk in cold to inspect public records.
"We feel like it gives us a sampling across the state and gives us a temperature of what's going on out there," Petersen said.
If the audit shows anything, it might be that both citizens and their governments need more information and training about records access, she said. Those who know what to ask for, or who use the law regularly, like reporters or activists, probably have an easier time than first-timers.
The audit underscores the ways different government agencies handle requests. City clerks may not bat an eye at handing out council meeting minutes, but Heber police turn over all citizens' requests to a city attorney before releasing information.
"Has that case been completely closed, is it still being adjudicated? Depending on what it is, we also have concerns about stalking, domestic violence, or involving juveniles," Rhoades said.
And it's in the area of privacy that Utah's GRAMA law stumbles, said Karl Hendricksen, chief of the civil division at the Salt Lake County District Attorney's office. Hendricksen, who advises the Salt Lake County Council, was on the drafting committee for GRAMA in the 1990s and says the trick to open-records law is finding the balance between information and protection.
"The public ought to have the broadest possible access to know what their government is doing," Hendricksen said. "But I think there is heightening sense that not all folks intend to do good with that information."
Hendricksen also sees a growing concern about electronic data and the ability of savvy computer experts to aggregate information and compile a more complete picture of something or someone.
Utah lawmakers will launch a task force next week to study the issue as well as other privacy concerns related to GRAMA.
See the full Utah audit, with grades for individual agencies.