Sunshine in government maintains accountability

In a government for the people and by the people, one would think secrets from the people wouldn’t be common. But they are.

For example, when The Northern Light showed up uninvited to a low-key UAA Board of Advisors Feb. 23 meeting in which UA President Mark Hamilton was to discuss interim chancellor candidates, our reporters were met with apprehension. Nobody seemed sure if we should be permitted to stay, despite the fact that board members were to discuss the future of UAA – a public institution. Though officials finally did decide to let us in, Hamilton subsequently denied our reporters access to a meeting with the Faculty Senate – after hearing vocal objections to our presence from Kerri Morris, president of the body – on the basis that personalities were to be discussed.

The board of advisors meeting “included visitors of all kinds, including newspaper reporters, and I can only tell you that that put a chill on the conversation,” Morris said.

She is not alone in wanting official business to be a secret affair.

The sad truth is that public officials are like children: They behave better when they know they’re being watched.

And that’s the reason for “Sunshine Week,” which is March 9-15. This national initiative by news media and civic groups aims to remind the public about the importance of openness in government.

Alaskans know well what it’s like when government can operate in the shadows. Even though Alaska has a strong law requiring open government meetings, the Legislature doesn’t have to follow it.

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Legislators wrote special rules for themselves. For years, those who controlled the Alaska House and Senate have used private caucuses to make substantive decisions about legislation.

An infamous example was when Republican lawmakers decided in secret caucus not to challenge Gov. Frank Murkowski’s 2003 decision to kill the longevity bonus. Supposedly it was only a strategic decision about “legislative procedure,” but it had real-world consequences for Alaska’s seniors. But because the decision was made in secret, Alaskans did not know precisely which lawmakers to hold accountable.

Forcing the Legislature to make all its real decisions out in the open would take a constitutional amendment. And that isn’t going to happen because legislators control what constitutional amendments get sent to Alaska voters for approval. They’re not going to give away the convenience and power of doing the public’s business in private.

Alaska also has a solid freedom of information law guaranteeing public access to government records. However, that law contains an exemption that can easily be abused.

When an agency is still “deliberating” a decision, it can try to withhold the information in question. Governors have used that exemption to hide information used to prepare their budgets. Abuse of this exemption can make it difficult to get information the agency doesn’t want to release until a decision is made. By then, it’s too late.

There are other tricks bureaucrats can play. They can try to charge unreasonable fees for searching and copying, even though Alaska allows a modest amount of free search time and lets the agency waive fees for requests that are in the public interest.

Bureaucrats can also drag out the process of producing documents. Regulations require responses within 10 working days plus a potential 10-day extension. But in reality, getting documents from a reluctant agency can take much longer.

It’s difficult to write laws that don’t leave room for bureaucratic abuse. Everyone is better served if public servants at all levels remember that they work for the public and that the public has a right to know what they’re doing.

This editorial was written in collaboration with the Anchorage Daily News.