Lawmakers want transparency in gas contract negotiations

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2007

The job of seeking accountability and public records from government officials was not confined to the public, members of the media or lawyers in Alaska last year.

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Even one lawmaker found himself in court, trying to force the release of Gov. Frank Murkowski's gas line contract with three oil companies.

"The same road blocks that face the public sometimes face us," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, whose court victory was somewhat diminished when Murkowski decided to release the document before the court order.

But it was a battle that French says he hopes won't have to be repeated this year as lawmakers again take up the natural gas pipeline project.

While French's lawsuit was well publicized, smaller battles are waged regularly in Alaska to obtain public documents.

It's a process that is not well defined in state law, and there's no agency designated to help those through the process. Many times, a person's only recourse when denied documents by a government agency is to do what French did, take their case to court.

And that troubles another lawmaker. State Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, is researching potential open records law revisions.

What is driving Dyson is a 5-year-old report from the Chicago-based watchdog Better Government Association, which examined all 50 states' sunshine laws, or how accessible state records are for the public. Alaska did not fare well, tied for 47th with Pennsylvania.

Dyson said he wasn't sure how much credence he wanted to place into a 2002 study, but it prompted him to begin some research with the prospects of an open government bill.

"What I'm not clear on is how good or how bad it is in Alaska, but I want to find out," Dyson said. "I learned in high school biology and from the Bible that mold and evil grow in the dark. One thing I know to do is let the sunshine in."

Novices to the state's open records laws, however, get little direction on how to obtain public documents, and the Alaska Department of Law does not readily provide assistance.

"How can I get a copy of a record from a state agency?" is one of the Frequently Asked Questions on the department's Web site. The reply states, "Ask the agency for it." It also warns people there may be a charge for copying documents, some documents - such as adoption records - may be confidential, and there is a referring link to the Alaska Public Records Act.

What is not spelled out, however, is any appeal process if your request is denied, and going to the Department of Law won't help you.

The Associated Press spent nearly two months looking for clarifications of the law and received vague references to statutes.

The department has answered non-case specific questions about law in the past, but refused to discuss open record questions.

"The department is prohibited from providing legal advice except to our client agencies," a department spokesman said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Other states, such as Texas, Maryland and Florida pursue a more proactive approach.

These states' Web sites post information about open records and open meetings by providing detailed links on the front of attorney general home pages.

In Alaska, however, it's been a longtime media lawyer who has provided a better source of information for the public concerning Alaska's open records laws.

Attorney John McKay has outlined the entire process for Alaska on The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site:

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