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Can too much transparency be a bad thing?

Posted: August 14, 2012 - 11:00pm

“Ex-Parnell official says governor’s office uses text messages to avoid disclosure” read a headline in the Anchorage Daily News last week. It had the makings of a scandal. However, the governor’s office denied the accusation. And almost every other news source in the state ignored the story. It may be that they trusted our governor’s response. Or perhaps they’ve been sensitized by the great transparency chase into former Governor Sarah Palin’s private email account.

The source for the Daily News article was Russ Kelly, a former associate director of Parnell’s office in Washington, D.C. Last year he sent an email to Cindy Sims, Governor Parnell’s deputy chief of staff, criticizing Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan. Kelly claims that Sims told him he should have sent text messages instead of an email so it wouldn’t fall under the Freedom of Information Act.

According to Daily News reporter Sean Cockerham, Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow admitted that Kelly was told his email was inappropriate. But she said it was for reasons other than sidestepping creating a written record that’s open to public disclosure. “The governor’s office does not have a practice of putting sensitive information in text messages to avoid public records requests” she told him. Leighow added that “text messages are transitory and are not public records.”

Should they be? That question could be the main objective of Cockerham’s story. Apparently the state denied a Daily News’ public records request for text messages sent from the governor’s office during the debate over Parnell’s oil tax proposal. And Cockerham further emphasized the Daily News’ position by stating that Alaska law defines public records as “books, papers, files, accounts, writings, including drafts and memorializations of conversations, and other items, regardless of format or physical characteristics.” So his reason for reporting on Kelly’s claim may be to resurrect the issue.

The State of Utah would agree with the Parnell administration. Last year their governor signed a bill that excludes text messages from the statutory definition of a public record. From the Daily News’ perspective though this is about the news media’s responsibility to help the public intelligently participate in oversight of our government. That ideal is behind the decisions by the states of Florida and Oregon that made text messages subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

To be sure, FIOA requests have a vital purpose in a government of and by the people. Ultimately though, it boils down to a matter of trust. There would be no need for disclosures of any kind if we trusted our elected officials and every public employee working on their behalf.

But shouldn’t trust be viewed as a two way street? In other words, do politicians have a realistic reason to believe that among their constituency there isn’t anyone out to grind a personal or partisan ax? The answer, of course, is no. Additionally, there’s always the temptation for a reporter to go on a fishing expedition in order to land a career enhancing scoop about political corruption. While neither of these is as bad as a law- breaking government, they are nonetheless a form of corruption that impedes the flow of a people’s democracy.

It’s not just physics where every action has a reaction. The need for transparency for its own sake may seem legitimate, but for politicians its counteraction can be finding different places to keep secrets from their political opposition. The result is a trove of hidden but otherwise worthless documents that might embarrass government officials but contain nothing that closely resembles wrongdoing. That’s exactly what was found in the personal email account that Palin used while she was governor. And the same was true for the vast majority of the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. Imagine if text messages were added to these mountains that should have been molehills.

Text messages may be written words but they’re really more like short bursts of spontaneous conversation than a well thought out document or even an email. And if they’re to be subjected to FOIA requests then we may just wind up driving political actors into a deeper realm of paranoia where they’ll look for new ways to keep their thoughts from public scrutiny.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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