It pays to run the traps on candidates

Posted: Monday, July 29, 2002

Eyebrows were raised at the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly last week a Ketchikan Daily News reporter revealed that the top applicant for borough manager had once been indicted by a grand jury. The candidate was cleared of any wrong-doing, but the fact that he was involved in a case could reflect adversely on his candidacy.

The candidate had disclosed the information to the hiring committee of the assembly so it was no secret, but it had not been passed on in a timely manner to the full assembly. It was no secret because newspaper articles from Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he had worked, explained it all in detail. Those articles are available on the Internet to any computer-literate person.

There is no reason the information should be withheld from the people that the candidate desires to serve. He's innocent. The incident shouldn't be held against him.

However, not all candidates are innocent. It once was tempting to escape to "the wilds of Alaska." It happened a lot in the old days. It won't work today. Here is why.

The Ketchikan Daily News went to court in 1977 to force Ketchikan Gateway Borough to reveal applicants for borough planning chief and borough manager. Until then, applicants for the few top jobs never were big stories for local newspapers. But by the '70s Alaska was attracting more interest following statehood and the oil boom. More local governments were expanding with planning departments. Hired managers were running things instead of an elected mayor.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Schulz ruled for the Daily News that the applications for the borough jobs were public records and must be released. His ruling early in 1978, limited the applications and resumes to only the top supervisory personnel, not union employees.

Shortly thereafter, he ruled similarly in Juneau when the Juneau Empire sought release of applicants for city/borough manager.

Neither Ketchikan or Juneau local governments appealed Judge Schulz's ruling. Then came the zingers that made Alaska newspapers more inclined to dig into backgrounds of applicants for top jobs.

The Peninsula Clarion in Kenai was refused applications for city manager. It went to court in 1979 and Judge James Hanson order city officials to release the names of the applicants and their resumes

Among the applications released was that of a 30-year-old Louisiana man who the Kenai City Council had offered the job of city manager. Clarion editor Ron Chappell checked the man's references with a newspaper in Pensacola, Fla., where he had last worked. He learned that the top candidate had lied about his job experience and his education. The man said it was all a mistake; that he was on his way to Alaska to explain. He never arrived.

A year later, Anchorage Mayor George Sullivan sought to hire a former New York and Pennsylvania policeman as Anchorage police chief. The Anchorage Daily News went to court to seek release of the names and resumes of applicants for the job.

Three hours before Superior Court Judge Karl Johnston issued a stay blocking the assembly from considering the recommendation for chief, the mayor announced his choice.

Managing Editor Clay Haswell set his newsroom to work investigating the background of the mayor's choice. They found that he had left a major item off of his resume. It was that he had been fired three years earlier for drinking on duty and harassing women in the Pennsylvania department he headed.

The candidate got as far as the Anchorage airport where he discovered the revelation and took the next plane east.

The City of Kenai and the Municipality of Anchorage, however, went to the high court, which combined the cases. The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that the local governments were entities of the state and must follow the public records laws of the state and that those job applications are public records.

As an addendum: Acting Anchorage Police Chief Brian Porter, who had risen in the ranks of the Anchorage department, became chief. After Porter retired, he was elected to the State House of Representative in 1992 and picked by his colleagues to serve several terms as speaker.

The lessons here are that it pays to check the performance of any candidate for public office in Alaska. Anyone can do it. Use the Internet or call the editor of a newspaper where a candidate last served.

Another point, exemplified by the Anchorage case, is that it is often a good idea to look at local experienced people.

Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News and a former member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents.

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