After hearing from a panel of diverse stakeholders, citizens Monday mostly questioned the details of city-proposed changes to how public officials in Juneau would comply with a local financial disclosure law that would replace the state’s reporting law.
The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly has been moving toward approving a ballot question asking voters to remove the city’s requirement to report local elected financial disclosures to the state, and instead adopt its own reporting plan.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC) is responsible for enforcing that state law, but it also has a provision for cities to opt-out with a vote of its citizens. To date, 116 Alaska communities have opted out. Most are small communities and a handful of Southeast communities have gone through the process. Fairbanks also recently opted out.
Citizens heard from Joan Mize, of APOC, Deputy Mayor Merrill Sanford, City Attorney John Hartle, Alaska Municipal League Director Kathie Wasserman (speaking in favor), Juneau Empire Deputy Managing Editor Charles Ward and local attorney Doug Mertz (speaking against).
Currently, there are 27 positions on different boards, and the city manager’s position, whose holders must file financial disclosure forms with the state.
That number isn’t slated to change under the CBJ proposed ordinance, nor the method by which citizens can view the materials.
However, significantly less information would be required by those officials. They would only be required to report sources of income above $1,000 — but no longer the exact amount. It also would no longer require how that income is earned — commission, salary, hourly. The state also requires reporting certain close economic associations and has a provision for administrative complaints, while the city does not.
Hartle said there are penalties for conflict of interest violations, including fines and, depending upon infraction, jail time.
The city’s plan also limits civil complaint filings against officials to registered Juneau voters, instead of any Alaska citizen.
That was questioned at the League of Women Voters Juneau forum, however there wasn’t an answer provided.
Mize, of APOC, outlined who files these forms in the state process, and how the process works under APOC. She also addressed a concern cited from the city as a reason for wanting to opt-out — online postings. Mize said currently only state legislators’ disclosure forms are posted online. Municipal officials are still paper-form only. She said there was significant outcry from municipalities to APOC in a September forum about that question, and the APOC commissioner stated APOC would take a serious look at it. The proposal to put local officials’ forms online was struck from the recent APOC regulation updates.
Sanford said there are several reasons Mayor Bruce Botelho brought this up as an issue. Sources of income would have less detail in the city’s report, in favor of more privacy for public officials. City code would eliminate an official’s requirement to file another notice a year after leaving office.
“We’re not trying to stop reporting APOC at all,” Sanford said. “It still is all required to be right here” at the City Clerk’s Office.
Sanford said this is an effort to balance the public’s “legitimate concern” for transparency and conflict of interest in public officials, versus the official’s right to privacy.
He said there also is concern about identity theft risks should the filings be posted online. That was a question by a citizen — has any public official every had their identity stolen through this information being available online? No one had an example.
Wasserman said back in 2007 when state Legislature had a lot of “ethical misjudgment” the state put down strict laws all the way down to municipalities. She said that was fine, however many municipalities already had these kind of rules in place. She said cities pushed to be able to opt out of state laws and go with their own rules.
Wasserman said a concern in this political climate is with the reaction of “what do you have to hide?”
“These ordinances proposed by CBJ are very, very much like regulations APOC has,” Wasserman said. “We feel that there is a very fine line between privacy and the public’s right to know. If I am the client of a spouse of the person who wants to serve on the harbor board, my privacy rights go away. We all have the right and we all should know what our elected officials are doing. We should know those things. We should all make sure they are doing what they were elected to do. We can’t legislate morality, it just can’t happen.”
The city’s ordinance comes from Ketchikan, which based them off APOC’s 2006 rules.
Ward’s concern against the city’s proposal is the outright prohibition of posting the information online. He said this completely shuts down a potential avenue of research and promotes inefficiency.
“Fifteen years ago that was the way information had to be accessed,” he said. “It was certainly reasonable to say there isn’t a better alternative. ... To say that we are going to prohibit that, to me is just simply denying the realities of the way the world is going to work in the future and they way it works now.”
Mertz outlined a scenario where an Alaska citizen relocates to Juneau, becomes aware of an improper financial situation between the city manager, elected official and a contractor, and outlined how difficult it would be for someone to prove improprieties under the proposed city code. He also detailed how difficult and expensive it would be for a citizen to file a lawsuit to take action.
“There is a world of difference between current mechanisms and current enforcement,” Mertz said. “The public would be the losers. It is only politicians and office holders who would benefit. ... I think it would be a major mistake for us to weaken our public financial disclosure laws. Our public officials deserve better and our public deserves better.”
Throughout citizen questions, it was clarified that both with how APOC works now and how the city version would operate, neither entity actively checks for errors or discrepancies. They only do so when they receive a complaint.
Sanford and Wasserman urged citizens to be vigilant about watching their elected officials, and if they aren’t performing to elected expectations to vote them out or speak up and be active participants in city processes.
• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.