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Alaska gets a 'D' for deficient when it comes to integrity

Posted: March 22, 2012 - 12:09am

A D-plus average might let you beat out Larry Kroger for the best report card in the Delta Tau Chi pledge class, but otherwise it’s considered a pretty lousy grade.

It’s also the mark Alaska recently received from the State Integrity Investigation, a state-by-state look at the risk of corruption each faces.

The Investigation took particular aim at the 49th State for poor public access to information, along with lousy pension fund management and redistricting processes. The report gave Alaska an ‘F’ in all of those categories.

“Alaska,” the report states, “boasts relatively strong ethics laws, but loopholes and a lack of oversight result in less accountability in practice than on paper.”

Of the many problems with the government of the Great Land is its lack of accountability to its citizens — a few examples stick out. The first is a series of exemptions to the state’s open records and open meetings laws that may not swallow the intent of having such rules in the first place, but they sure take a big bite out of it. Earlier this month, I took aim at one of those exceptions, which agencies can and do use to keep documents that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of a suspect, defendant, victim, or witness” hidden from view. Since nearly any court record contains information that could reasonably fall within such a sweeping statement, that loophole becomes a great place to hide information that might be embarrassing if released. For more on that issue, visit bit.ly/GETtlU.

Another exemption to the state’s openness laws is the “Executive/Deliberative Process” dodge. The State Integrity Investigation called this one out in the excellent story by the Anchorage Daily News’ Sean Cockerham that accompanies its report. These judicially created exemptions give the state the ability to withhold documents that pertain to not just to the governor’s decision-making processes, but to those in all executive branches (any state body whose title begins “Department of,” essentially). The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press states once the executive branch makes a legally justifiable claim to these privileges, “the burden is cast on the party seeking the records to overcome a presumption of confidentiality, and that this burden is difficult to meet.”

Cockerham points out this loophole allowed the state to withhold more than 2,000 of the emails requested by media organizations and individuals about the governorship of Sarah Palin. It also allowed the state to redact much of what was in the emails that were released.

“This exemption … is commonly applied and vastly weakens the public records law,” he wrote. “It’s impossible to know whether the state is applying the loophole responsibly, since the content of the emails in question is kept secret and news organizations nowadays often the lack the funds to go to court and challenge the state’s withholding of information.”

That brings up another key problem with Alaska’s sunshine laws — difficulty of enforcement. If a person, media organization or advocacy group makes a request for a record and is denied, their only recourses are an appeal to the agency that said no in the first place, or to the court system. That’s expensive and time-consuming, particularly for a single person, and its just one more weapon the state government can wield when fighting to keep Alaska’s citizens away from their records.

There are plenty of other problems, too. The Legislature gave itself and the state courts blanket exemptions from the Open Meetings Act. Remember Congressman Don Young’s private meetings with the Legislature last week? The ones he defended by saying the questions were better when the television cameras were off? All of that comes courtesy of the Legislature’s exemption from the Open Meetings Act, and allows the Legislature and Young to decide for the people that it’s better to discuss the state’s relationship with Washington, D.C. behind closed doors.

Electronic access is another problem, as are potentially burdensome fees. I recently inquired with an out-of-town police force and an out-of-town court about getting records. Both wanted written requests either faxed or mailed. The police wanted $6, and the court asked for 25 cents a page in copying fees. Those amounts aren’t particularly onerous, but could become so quickly if a news organization wanted to obtain a bunch of them for analysis. Putting public records online would save expense and time in waiting for the documents to be delivered and would permit public workers to free up efforts currently spent in complying with requests.

Even though the Legislature last revamped the state’s sunshine laws in the wake of the VECO scandals, it’s time again for them to be revisited. Tightening up the loopholes, applying the law as uniformly as possible across state and municipal bodies (of course, they aren’t all created equally, and some might have more legitimate privacy needs than others) and creating an ombudsman for records requests would be a good place to start.

Twenty-seventh, closed and outdated is no way to go through life, and it’s time we asked for better.

• Ward is deputy managing editor of the Juneau Empire. The views expressed here are his, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Empire’s editorial board.

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