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Court says public has right to see municipality's internal papers

Posted: Monday, August 18, 2003

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that the Homer City Council erred when it refused to turn over internal documents to local residents who opposed the city's efforts to annex new territory.

The ruling Friday affirms the public's right to see how municipal governments make some decisions.

The high court unanimously overturned a decision by Superior Court Judge Harold Brown, who two years ago backed the city's right to keep departmental memos secret as part of its internal "deliberative" process.

The court said it will continue to weigh public records challenges on a case-by-case basis.

"It feels pretty good," said Abigail Fuller, one of the Homer-area residents who appealed Brown's decision as part of a larger three-year-plus struggle against the city's annexation effort.

Homer originally sought to add 25 square miles to its land mass. In 2001, the state's Local Boundary Commission approved a smaller annexation of about 4.5 square miles.

Opponents objected to new taxes and regulations they'd face in city limits, and also complained that the city had been high-handed and secretive in its effort. They have appealed the commission's decision in court.

Friday's ruling should help that appeal, Fuller told the Anchorage Daily News. She said the appellants would also ask the city to repay legal costs, which she said could reach $30,000.

Her group had sought the internal documents hoping to buttress their case against annexation. They suspected the departmental memos might show that annexation made less financial sense than the city's formal proposal suggested.

They were turned down by then-City Manager Ron Drathman, who said the prospect of disclosure would keep his department heads from speaking candidly.

Drathman was backed by the City Council, which reviewed the sought-after documents behind closed doors. Fuller has not yet seen the memos.

State boundary commission officials called the Homer annexation battle one of the most contentious since statehood. City officials said residents outside Homer had been benefiting from city services without helping pay for them.

The newly annexed area added about 900 people to Homer's population of 4,000.

The Supreme Court said the city may have had an argument for secrecy while it was putting together its proposal to the Local Boundary Commission. But once the proposal was made public, there was little apparent need to keep things secret, the court said.

"The public's interest in disclosure of all potentially relevant government records grew strong and specific once the council filed the annexation petition," the court said.



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