Panel wants meetings opened

Lawmakers likely to ignore request of citizens' committee

Posted: Tuesday, March 13, 2001

A citizen-dominated ethics committee on Monday recommended opening some now-closed legislative meetings.

But the Legislature probably won't adopt the guidelines because most lawmakers on the committee said they go too far.

The guidelines approved by the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics allow caucuses or informal groups of legislators to meet behind closed doors to discuss political strategy. That allowance is required by law, although under the guidelines a closed caucus couldn't vote or agree on a course of action on legislation.

But the guidelines would not allow joint House and Senate majority or minority caucuses to meet in private. And the proposed rules don't let delegations or caucuses from a specific geographic area meet privately if they're voting or agreeing upon a course of action on legislation.

"As far as the public is concerned, it would be nice if everything was open," said Shirley McCoy of Juneau, one of the panel's public members.

Sen. John Torgerson, a Kasilof Republican, said the guidelines aren't realistic. He worried a chance meeting in a pizza parlor with other members of the Kenai Peninsula delegation would be against the rules.

"We couldn't even be in a rest room together," Torgerson said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, disagreed with that interpretation. She said delegation meetings would be allowed under the guidelines as long as the members did not vote or agree on a course of action on legislation.

Rep. Joe Green, an Anchorage Republican, said the rules could be a problem for delegations of legislators who go to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress. The guidelines would hamstring the Legislature and wouldn't serve the public, he said.

"They really don't care what goes on," Green said, adding that the public elects lawmakers to represent them. He called the guidelines "something the public doesn't even really want or certainly doesn't need."

Torgerson worried the guidelines on delegation meetings could slow down the process of reappropriations - in which legislators from a region agree how to spend leftover construction project money from that area.

Legislators from an area typically circulate a memo among their offices, and the Finance Committees agree to their recommendations. Subjecting that process to the guidelines could drag out legislative sessions, Torgerson said.

Kerttula suggested amending the guidelines to make an exception for reappropriations.

McCoy said legislators can make whatever changes they want once it's in their hands. She expressed frustration that the committee has been working on guidelines for several years without coming up with something the Legislature can agree to.

The Ethics Committee has submitted proposals to every Legislature since 1994 and the full Legislature has never adopted them, committee staff member Susie Barnett said.

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