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My Turn: Public process trampled by unilateral decisions

Posted: February 3, 2013 - 1:05am

Public participation is the cornerstone of democracy. We see it clearly expressed by our forefathers in their description of the ideal government: one that is ruled by the people, for the people. Unfortunately, the democratic process is under direct threat in Alaska. There has been a pattern of behavior in the Capitol Building recently, both by the Governor’s office and the Legislature, to whittle away at our revered democratic process.

In 2012, the Parnell administration unilaterally changed the mission statement of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources—without input from the public or review by the Alaska State Legislature. The old mission statement read: “To develop, conserve, and enhance natural resources for present and future generations.” The unilateral change in the mission statement struck the words conserve, enhance, and future generations—all words used to protect the public interest, both present and future. Both the public and the Legislature were completely ignored.

In a similar development from the past month, we’ve seen a big shakeup in the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. On a brief visit to the Alaska Ship and Drydock facility in Ketchikan, the administration made the surprise announcement that DOT will abandon a half-decade of public involvement and legislative process to construct an Alaska Class Ferry, and instead construct two smaller, partially open-deck shuttle ferries.

Shortly thereafter, DOT asked for the resignation of Deputy Commissioner Mark Nuessl, who oversaw Marine Operations at DOT. His replacement was sought without consultation of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, something that is required of DOT under state statute to do. Again, as with the overhaul of DNR’s mission statement, these decisions were entirely unilateral, and they not only ignored the long history of public process on these issues, but also attempted to circumvent public process down the road.

And this year, the Parnell administration has proposed to reverse a 2006 citizens’ initiative that required cruise ships to treat their wastewater discharge in a manner consistent with state water quality standards. This proposal, seemingly on the fast track for passage in the Legislature, would make it easier for cruise ships to dump upward of 800,000 million gallons of partially treated human wastes and heavy metals, including copper and zinc, into the Inside Passage waters in which we harvest our salmon, halibut, crab, and other marine life. This attempt to undo what, just a few years ago, the citizens of this state worked so hard to make a reality, expresses disregard for the public will.

This disregard for the public process is not exclusive to the Governor’s administration. In 2006, the Utah State Legislature passed a bill intended to keep public advocates out of state courtrooms by requiring cost-prohibitive security bonds simply to access the courts. The Governor of Utah vetoed this bill due to credible concerns that it was unconstitutional because it violated both primacy issues and democratic principles. Despite the fact that this bill was unconstitutional, a similar bill—HB 47—has been introduced in the Alaska State Legislature this year in an attempt to make it next to impossible for public advocates to use the courtroom.

In a similar development, HB 3 is Representative Bob Lynn’s voter suppression bill. Although there has only been one documented case of voter fraud in the State of Alaska since statehood, Representative Lynn’s bill would require photo identification for all voters in an attempt to solve a nonexistent problem. For many people, this does not seem like a big deal. But for rural Alaskans where DMVs and other photo-ID outlets are hard to come by -- this is very much a big deal, and the bill seems intended to limit the participation of rural Alaskans in public elections and initiatives.

This pattern of behavior does not demonstrate a healthy, robust, democratic process with legitimate public involvement. Instead, it is a pattern of unilateral decision-making and public marginalization. With this pattern of behavior, can we the people have confidence that our revered democratic process is safe in Alaska?

• Hafey grew up in a hunting family. He studied political science with an emphasis on agriculture at Creighton University, and he works for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau.

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