Secret move deserved some public scrutiny

Empire editorial

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2004

If you were surprised by Tuesday's headlines announcing Gov. Frank Murkowski's decision to move the Alaska Marine Highway System from Juneau to Ketchikan, you weren't alone. Monday afternoon's announcement more than caught the ferry system's employees - and Juneau residents - off guard.

More disturbing than the news itself, though, is this: The process the governor used to make his decision was conducted outside of public view. Not only is that bad public policy and bad government, it made a liar of Tom Briggs, deputy commissioner of the state's Department of Transportation, who last December promised ferry system employees there would be a public and open review of the proposal to move their offices.

Consider this: Last Thursday transportation Commissioner Mike Barton held a meeting with ferry system employees to share with them the findings of an internal review conducted on the feasibility of the proposed move. When news reporters showed up at the meeting, however, he held the information and conducted what many of the office's 40 employees considered to be a worthless meeting. As long as we're talking about the public's business in a public meeting, why not share what is public information at that point?

On Monday Barton hosted a press conference in which he made public the findings of the study, but at the same time he dropped the bomb on AMHS workers: The decision to relocate to Ketchikan has been made by the governor. The deal is done.

Ferry system employees and members of Juneau's legislative delegation were not only surprised but also furious over the absence of any process for public input or debate, and rightfully so. Barton and Murkowski's minions in the capitol press office deny there was any attempt to be underhanded about the deal, but the governor and the transportation commissioner have, at the very least, created the perception of a deal conceived and cut surreptitiously.

Juneau's legislative leaders and Mayor Bruce Botelho say that for months they had requested information about the proposed move from DOT and from the Murkowski administration, but that none was shared. That's unfair. Barton said Monday he didn't share the information because he thought public officials wouldn't want to be involved in the minor details of the study. That's either ignorance or arrogance.

Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, who serves as chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, has indicated he will dig hard and deep to determine why the Juneau-to-Ketchikan deal was orchestrated in secret, and we applaud him for doing so.

Even if the numbers in Barton's study bear out the fact that the marine highway system can be better served in Ketchikan, the public's business should have been conducted in the light of day. And the governor himself should have done his own dirty work Monday in announcing the move to ferry system employees. It was, after all, his decision.

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