Understanding what the Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) means for your administration.
John Doe, a local resident, emailed you last week asking you for the gross compensation of everyone on the City Council. You aren’t sure if he’s thinking about running for office, filing a lawsuit, or just trying to be a good—albeit extremely over-informed—citizen.
You know that local government should be transparent, but weren’t sure what to tell John. So you forwarded his email to the City’s Finance Department, who didn’t know either. After a week of bouncing around, the message ended up right back in your inbox—along with a follow-up email from John.
So what does the law actually say about fulfilling records requests?
Government Transparency And GRAMA
The Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) is a series of Utah laws that protect the public’s right to public records prepared, maintained, or controlled by a government entity. It applies at the state, county, and local levels.
Under GRAMA, Utah municipalities are required to provide public documents to anyone who asks for them and to make the process reasonably prompt, easy, and efficient. A full list of such documents can be found in Utah State statues (or in this civiclinQ training module), but some of the main documents considered “public records” a local government might have requested are these:
- Laws, ordinances, and regulations, plus governmental interpretation of the same.
- Government officer/employee work information (names, contact information, qualifications, compensation, and more). So yes, John Doe has a right to know how much the City Council is making.
- Open public meeting transcripts and voting records.
- Records filed with or maintained by entities that deal with property ownership, use, or taxes (includes county recorders, clerks, treasurers, surveyors, land use authorities, and other departments).
- Government contract receipts (payments from the government to contractors and private providers).
- Summaries of voter registration records, including voting history.
- Government financial statements.
There are a few cases in which government documents can be withheld from the public, but these only apply when doing so is necessary for the overall good of the community—like when doing so would blow an undercover cop’s cover, bias a jury, etc. But in most cases, if you get a records request from John Doe, you should probably send him what he’s looking for.
NOTE: The law states that all records created or maintained by a political subdivision (i.e. town, city, county, etc.) are the property of the state. This means you as a local administrator have a responsibility to not only keep good records, but also to preserve them.
Striving For Municipal Transparency
GRAMA was born from the vision of transparent government. As taxpayers are the ones paying for the government’s services—and voting in the next election—it’s wise for cities and towns to strive to fulfill the spirit of the law. If you have to be subpoenaed to keep residents informed about how well the public organization is doing its job, then you probably aren’t winning friends and influencing people effectively.
In fact, communities should take the initiative in making useful documents available to the public. At a minimum, each municipality should have its general plan, zoning map, and code/ordinances in an easy-to-find location on its website. (Have you heard of our civiclinQ code-hosting platform?) Including an easily-accessible GRAMA request form for additional documents is also a good idea.
How GRAMA Works
Here some specifics to keep in mind:
- Keep good records (minutes). It’s awfully hard to comply with a records request without them.
- Anyone can submit a GRAMA request to your municipality.
- GRAMA requests should be in writing and include the requester’s name, mailing address, phone number, and a specific description of the record requested. (Providing a link to a simple form like this can help everyone involved).
- The requested record can’t be one that hasn’t been created yet. (i.e. future meeting minutes, budgets, etc.) Those need to be requested as the records are produced.
- You don’t have to deliver the same record to the same requester more than once.
- You can charge reasonable fees for the retrieval of records and for the cost of producing them (i.e. hard copies).
- Once requested, you (a municipality in Utah) have a maximum of ten business days to respond to non-expedited requests and five business days to respond to expedited requests. (Don’t keep John waiting much longer!)
For The Record…
Not all “dear John” letters are a bad thing. Records transparency can go a long way in building community trust. If your municipal website, ordinances, or records systems need help, don’t be a stranger!
Call Rural Community Consultants today to get expert planning and administration advice to make your community the best it can be.
Want To Learn More?
Check out our online training modules! Note: Rural Community Consultants is able to provide access to specific training modules free of charge courtesy of the Utah Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman.