Tuesday’s decision by the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly to call an executive session to discuss the merits of candidates for a recently vacated seat on that body may have been within the letter of Alaska’s open meetings law, but it certainly violated its spirit.
“(I)t is the intent of the law that actions of (Alaska’s governmental) units be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”
The above statement comes from the Alaska statutes and declares the state’s policy is the business of the people should be conducted in view of the people. The members of the City Assembly, however, took a different tack, shrouding their deliberations about who would join the group in secrecy. Their rationale for doing so was provisions of state law permitting governmental bodies to go behind closed doors when voting on how the body is organized and also when discussing “subjects that tend to prejudice the reputation and character of any person, provided the person may request a public discussion.”
It’s important to note, however, the statute covering executive sessions is permissive — it may allow entities like the City Assembly to discuss hiring a new Assemblywoman in private, but it does not require it.
A candidate for City Assembly is different than an applicant for most other city positions, casting votes deciding how taxpayer dollars are spent, how land is used and which top administrators are hired. An Assemblymember is ordinarily vetted by her bosses: the people of the City and Borough of Juneau. The candidate is asked to declare his or her reasons for running, qualifications for the position and goals to strive for while in office. This gives members of the public the ability to ask critical questions of the presumptive officeholder at forums, through the media and, in a town as closely-knit as Juneau, on the street. Anderson won’t resign his seat until the May 23 Assembly meeting, which would have given that body plenty of time to properly evaluate the concerns we raised prior to the executive session and consider a way to deliberate both openly and honestly. The two are not mutually exclusive, despite Mayor Bruce Bothelo’s protestations to the contrary. The Assembly needed to get both the selection and the process right, but instead made the right choice in the wrong way. Since, in this instance, the Assembly stood in the place of the electorate in the candidate vetting process, it owed its constituents a transparent discussion of the merits of each candidate. Instead, we received a batch of resumes and a pro forma vote while the Assembly conducted the real decision making behind closed doors.
We’ll have to hope for the best from Katherine Eldemar as she casts important votes about Juneau’s future for the next six months, though we are impressed by her credentials and believe an open process could have better highlighted her bona fides to the citizens she will represent.
We’ll also have to hope for something else: revisions to Alaska’s open meetings laws. The impropriety of a public, elected body picking a replacement for one of its members almost completely in secret should speak for itself. A law that so eloquently states “the people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know,” should not tolerate this possibility.
For now, however, we are left to hope the Assembly will understand in the future that because it can do a thing, it doesn’t follow it must do that thing. The next time it faces a choice between openness or secrecy in such a vital decision, we urge it to pick the former.