Data Collection

The increase over recent years in data-driven journalism has provided reporters with new opportunities to hold government accountable and ways to build trust among their audiences. In that spirit, I decided to find out how frequently cities in Salt Lake County closed a portion of their meetings to the public over the course of a year. To do that, I gathered information from nearly 400 city council minutes from 14 cities across the county, filed dozens of records requests and used Excel to manage and interpret the data. The process took nearly a month.

Once it was complete, the story was printed on the front page of The Salt Lake Tribune, which has a circulation of nearly 75,000 print papers, and it reached more than 5,000 readers online. The story also led to the finding that one city had misplaced records for more than a dozen meetings, in violation of state law, and prompted several municipalities to publicly address open meetings laws.

Read the full story online here or see the print copy here.

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73% of Draper’s City Council meetings were closed to the public at some point. How does your city rate for transparency?

While there are fewer than 12 miles between their city halls, Draper and Murray couldn’t be further apart in their practice of closing city council meetings.

The Draper City Council closed a portion of nearly three of four of its regularly scheduled, special, emergency and work-session meetings to the public in 2016, while Murray closed only one out of 25 in the same time frame.

The two cities were at opposite ends of the spectrum of municipalities in Salt Lake County analyzed by The Salt Lake Tribune. Five of the 14 cities examined by the newspaper closed portions of a majority of their meetings, while the remaining nine kept a majority of their sessions open to the public.

“It varies just based on who the attorney is and who the mayor is,” said Linda Petersen, who sits on the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee. “It’s a personality thing. Some [cities] are much more open than others, and you’ve got to think — if one can be this open, why can’t the others?”

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While there are fewer than 12 miles between their city halls, Draper and Murray couldn’t be further apart in their practice of closing city council meetings.

The Draper City Council closed a portion of nearly three of four of its regularly scheduled, special, emergency and work-session meetings to the public in 2016, while Murray closed only one out of 25 in the same time frame.

The two cities were at opposite ends of the spectrum of municipalities in Salt Lake County analyzed by The Salt Lake Tribune. Five of the 14 cities examined by the newspaper closed portions of a majority of their meetings, while the remaining nine kept a majority of their sessions open to the public.

“It varies just based on who the attorney is and who the mayor is,” said Linda Petersen, who sits on the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee. “It’s a personality thing. Some [cities] are much more open than others, and you’ve got to think — if one can be this open, why can’t the others?”

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To close a meeting, state “sunshine” laws require public bodies meet a range of requirements, including stating the specific legal reason for the closure and a roll-call vote that must pass by at least a two-thirds margin.

State law doesn’t allow public officials to discuss just anything in closed meetings. For example, a discussion about “pending or reasonably imminent litigation” or “the character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of an individual” would be acceptable, while a discussion of tax increases or road projects would not. And any vote on public business would be illegal.

Michael Anderson, an attorney with the Utah law firm Parr Brown Gee & Loveless in its First Amendment and media practice group, said it’s possible Draper closed its meetings legally but called its number of closures “curious.”

“When the vast majority of meetings are being closed, that certainly would raise concerns that those meetings are not being closed pursuant to the very narrow exceptions for openness,” he said. “The clear legislative policy embedded in the Open and Public Meetings Act is, ‘Do as much in public as you can.’ “