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Financial disclosure ballot question waits for public forum

League of Women Voters seeks delay, offers to host the event

Posted: May 23, 2011 - 9:53pm  |  Updated: May 27, 2011 - 2:25am
Katherine Eldemar is given roses by her two daughters, Tristan and Alexis Weissmuller, after she was sworn in to the Juneau Assembly Monday evening to serve out  Jonathan Anderson term.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Katherine Eldemar is given roses by her two daughters, Tristan and Alexis Weissmuller, after she was sworn in to the Juneau Assembly Monday evening to serve out Jonathan Anderson term.

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly’s proposal to ask voter approval to allow the city to remove itself from state financial disclosure laws in lieu of its own was delayed to allow for a public forum.

More than 100 Alaska communities have opted out of the requirements required by the Alaska Public Offices Commission, most recently including Fairbanks. Anchorage still uses the state law.

The League of Women Voters asked the Assembly to delay and volunteered to host the forum to allow for better understanding of what these changes exactly mean and why it’s being done.

Jim Powell, League board member, appreciated the service Assembly members have given and spoke on behalf of the League.

“If the requirements the state impose on the city has been not meaningful, the public should have the opportunity to understand why,” he said. “We ask the Assembly to defer action until the public has a chance to understand why.”

Powell said there are many questions that need to be answered before a vote, including:

• What is the problem with the current law and what is the ordinance trying to address?

• Is it focused only on restricting information from the Internet?

• How would a lack of disclosure be handled?

• Does the new ordinance pose an added burden to local voters by restricting access to information?

The League doesn’t have a specific day in mind, but is aware of deadline restrictions for putting the question on the ballot.

Bob Tkacz, a correspondent with Fishermen’s News in Juneau, spoke against the city’s change.

“Whatever your intent is, the effect is to hide information from the public,” he said. “As recent state and national history continues to demonstrate, we have far too many dishonest and unethical public officials.”

He said that to say the Assembly has honest and ethical people, so the in-depth financial disclosure laws aren’t needed, is contrary to the intent of the law.

Tkacz also said people who don’t file a financial disclosure report should not be allowed to get a refund of election filing fees. Currently, candidates who do not file the financial disclosure forms along with their other paperwork are barred from appearing on the ballot, but receive a refund of their ballot access fees. Tkacz said if they don’t know of the report or for whatever reason miss the filing, they aren’t prepared for the job they’re asking citizens to give.

He also took issue with the city version only calling for a candidate, their spouse and any dependent children to disclose income received above $1,000. This simplifies the state requirement to disclose details that indicate how that money was earned.

Tkacz said there was an incident in Bell, Calif., where a city manager paid himself $800,000 and other officials had high dollar salaries because of poor financial disclosure laws.

He said the additional information required — such as how much a person made, hours worked and how they made it would serve the intent of conflict of interest and ensuring that officials are receiving fairly earned incomes.

Tkacz also questioned the Assembly’s intent to make the change to keep the information off the Internet. One reason Mayor Bruce Botelho gave initially was that the state could at some point put that information online, opening it up globally and making candidates subject to identity theft or fraud.

Tkacz couldn’t understand how the Assembly thought it was convenient and accessible for the public to have to write the city or visit the clerk’s office.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “How can it be that all record keeping are being converted to electronic formats because it is the most convenient, efficient method. With all due respect, it is not simply credible or logical proposition. Data being collected could be used for illegal purposes. Almost every piece of collected data can be used for illegal purposes. This is as bright of a red herring as your faces should be if you passed that provision.”

Botelho said he understood the $1,000 limit issue, but wasn’t sure how knowing the full income amount would identify a conflict of interest.

“We have to know if you’re getting legitimate pay for legitimate work or if you’re getting an inflated amount,” Tkacz said.

Assemblyman Jonathan Anderson was uncomfortable with the portion of the city proposal for $1,000 disclosures. He didn’t feel that was enough, but he wasn’t sure what to recommend as a balance between privacy and adequate disclosure.

Assemblyman Bob Doll said if he disclosed $25 from a cruise line, and there was no other information required on the form, people would still be suspicious and investigate it. He felt that just reported sources of income was sufficient for conflict of interest purposes.

School board member Mark Choate spoke in favor of the city proposal.

He has been on the board for six years and filled out the forms. Choate, an attorney, believes the current practice is incredibly invasive, particularly when he has to put down client names and income received for tough cases like child deaths and rapes.

“Why does everybody in the world need to know my financial information to serve on the school board?” he asked. “If someone wants to know about me, put pressure on me, find out where my children are, what my assets are, they can. It certainly shouldn’t be out there for the rest of the world.”

Choate said it is appropriate for the city to take this over, and feels that APOC penalties and quality assurance of all applicants is lacking.

Anderson was also uncomfortable with the city taking over financial disclosure laws because of oversight.

“As much as I appreciate Mr. Choate’s concerns, he’s speaking from someone who’s an honest and ethical person,” he said. “There are lots of people who are not as honest and trustworthy as Mr. Choate. I have a larger concern over the nature, the big picture of what we’re doing. What we’re proposing to say, instead of having an outside entity monitor us, we’re going to monitor ourselves. That makes me uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable in anyone saying, I’ll be the judge and let you know.”

Anderson also is uncomfortable with it because if citizens pass the measure, the Assembly can change the ordinance after at any time without a public vote, merely public Assembly meeting votes.

The Assembly unanimously agreed to hold action until a public forum is held. The Assembly defers it to the Committee of the Whole, which will hold a special meeting immediately prior to a scheduled Assembly meeting early in July. The target date for the public forum is June 27.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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