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Alaska's public records capability called behind the times

Some suspect the process was meant to be cumbersome for those who sought Palin's emails

Posted: June 11, 2011 - 9:57pm

State officials took more than two years, time longer than Sarah Palin’s term as governor, to release emails from her administration that were first requested in 2008 when she was tapped as the Republican vice-presidential nominee.

When the emails were eventually released Friday, they’d been converted to paper, with the state requiring those who wanted copies of the 24,199 pages to pay $725 each.

If they wanted them shipped, that would cost hundreds of dollars more, as well as delaying their receipt.

Members of the administration of Gov. Sean Parnell, who’d been Palin’s lieutenant governor, struggled Friday to explain why they chose the costly, cumbersome process.

“We don’t have the software to transmit them electronically,” said Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow.

State officials said they originally converted the emails from electronic to paper format for them to be reviewed by attorneys, and in some cases redacted, but could not explain why they didn’t convert them back when they had the opportunity, such as at the commercial printer.

“Our office did not ask that,” said Linda Perez, director of administration for the Office of the Governor.

Perez refused to name the printer who handled the printing of tens of thousands of copies. She didn’t cite a legal basis for withholding the company with the printing contract, but said the Empire could file a public records request for it.

Under the state Public Records Act, the agency has 10 days to respond to such requests, but numerous extensions are also possible.

Perez said the printer who produced the copies could not produce digital copies of them for the media because they’d been given a contract to make paper copies.

Perez, accompanied by Leighow, said she didn’t recall who had made the decision to provide those instructions to the printer and to seek out a printing and not a scanning contract.

Bill Dedman of msnbc.com, part of a media consortium which was scanning the paper copies to return them to electronic form, said Alaska was clearly trying to produce the records in difficult-to-handle paper.

“The print shop has an electronic copy,” he said.

“They could have handed us a CD-ROM, they had all these copies at the printer and that’s how high speed copiers work,” he said.

At the governor’s administrative office Friday, activist Andree McLeod said the Parnell Administration made the records harder to obtain when it insisted on providing them only on paper.

“When I flew in yesterday I saw a mountainside that had been clear-cut, I think it was to supply the paper for this,” she said. “They could have easily given this on a disc.”

Perez said her office tried to keep he cost down when it selected a printer.

“We called out for quotes, and selected the printer with the least per-page price,” she said.

Arthur Crivella of Crivella West, a document management company hired by some media companies to convert the documents back to digital format, said Alaska appears to be well behind the national standard for making public information accessible.

Looking over the document copies, which came in six cartons weighing nearly 300 pounds, he said it didn’t have to be handled that way.

“We’re dealing with it here like we were in 1950, with all these banker’s boxes of paper,” he said.

Crivella said the state appears to be so far behind the times that he doesn’t think it is an accident.

“You have to go out of your way to do this,” he said.

“It would be like me paying my taxes in pennies — I know it’s legal tender, but I have to go out of my way to do it,” he said.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said he was “astounded” at how the Governor’s Office was handling the email release.

“Our printer here in the hallway can scan them onto a disc,” he said.

The Parnell administration planned to make the public review copies available only at the governor’s office in Juneau. However, Egan and other legislators intervened and public review copies will now be available at Legislative Information Offices in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Media companies are also putting the records online. There is be a joint website by msnbc.com, ProPublica and Mother Jones magazine located at palinemail.msnbc.msn.com where the emails are available for review.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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