Ethics committee put on hold by Legislature

Delay is over decision to reappoint public members of the panel

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005

Alaska's Select Committee on Legislative Ethics has been unable to conduct business for more than a week because the Legislature has not appointed the members necessary to hold meetings.

Some lawmakers said the holdup is over the decision to reappoint public members of the panel, which issued an opinion earlier this year saying the Legislature did not adhere to "open meetings principles" during the 2004 session.

The committee consists of five members of the public and four state lawmakers - two from the House and two from the Senate. The panel is charged with interpreting the state ethics code and investigating allegations of ethics violations.

Joyce Anderson, ethics committee administrator, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that the House has appointed its two members this year but the Senate has not. The Legislature also has not confirmed three public member seats that came open Feb. 8.

"We're not operational now," she said, noting that it takes three public members and two legislative members for the group to meet.

Anderson said if an ethics complaint is filed, the committee cannot meet to discuss it.

The three public members whose terms expired have reapplied. They have been recommended by the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, but the Legislature has not confirmed them.

The three members are attorneys Dennis "Skip" Cook of Fairbanks; Herman Walker of Anchorage; and nursing professor Marianne Stillner of Juneau.

Senate Judiciary Co-chairman Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, said the process of submitting nominations to the chief justice is not widely publicized and that more applicants should be made aware of the positions.

He said that of the three nominees, two are lawyers and one is a university professor.

"We may want to go back to the chief justice to ask for a broader spectrum of applicants," Seekins said.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, a member of the ethics committee last year, said he believes the delay is due to an advisory opinion issued Jan. 7 admonishing lawmakers on open meetings law. The opinion was requested by Democratic Sens. Lyman Hoffman of Bethel and Donny Olson of Nome over a complaint that an education appropriations bill filed in 2003 was held for 1012 months and then passed by the Senate Finance Committee with no public notice.

Committees bypass the public notice requirement by listing their agendas with the notice "bills previously heard/scheduled." This means the committee can bring up any bill it has already discussed or scheduled to discuss without notice.

The ethics opinion said the stealth movement of the bill illustrates that the category is "too broad to provide any meaningful notice to the public" and that the Legislature failed to "preserve the integrity of the legislative process which is required for a fair and open government."

Elton said some lawmakers argued that the category is a "legislative tradition."

The opinion was favored by Democratic and public members on the ethics panel but opposed by Anchorage Republican Sen. Ben Stevens and Rep. Norm Rokeberg.

Seekins said he wants to see the positions filled soon so the committee can get back to work. But he said he does not have a deadline for when the nominees should be confirmed.

Stevens, who as Senate president is responsible for appointing the two Senate members to the panel, could not be reached for comment.

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