Empire Editorial: Keep agency debate on resources out in the open

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2004

A little more than a week after the governor's aides say that this administration is all about transparency in government, a disturbing report comes out.

The report states that three Alaska agencies - the ones that oversee environmental issues - will no longer issue separate written opinions about resource controversies. Instead they'll work out their differences of opinion before taking them to the public. Environmentalists and activists immediately jumped on this, arguing that resource debates should not be held behind closed doors.

Agency officials now claim the report got it wrong. The new policy isn't about stifling agency comments on projects; it's about timing, they say. State officials will talk about differences of opinion before the public comment period, not just during it. And, officials insist, when state agency experts write comments on resource issues, they will be available to the public.

That had better be the case because written comments are a vital part of the public process. Take proposals on mines, road-building or altering salmon streams. Citizens have long relied on state scientists' opinions to formulate their own comments.

Officials' claims that the public will still have access to the positions of experts in the Alaska departments of Fish and Game, Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation are a relief, although there is still cause to be wary. Comments by Ernesta Ballard, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, remain troubling. "The public has a right to expect that the government can reasonably resolve internal differences," she said, among other comments indicating agency discussion should not be open to the average citizen.

Sure, the public doesn't want to have to deal with every interagency squabble. But citizens have every right to hear differences in opinion by fisheries scientists or environmental regulators. Ballard sounds as if she lacks an appreciation for one of the cornerstones of the democratic process: a public exchange of opinion. And it's especially disturbing when the opinion that would be quieted is coming from some of the best experts on resource issues.

The memo that generated this whole discussion is one of those masterpieces of bureaucratic vagueness that makes it hard to figure out what the new policy is. It does not explicitly state a ban on written comments on resource issues by agency officials. It does state that separate formal comments by agencies will be replaced by an interagency working group review. And it throws out nebulous phrases, such as "interagency cooperative approach" and "to ensure that we all benefit from each other's areas of expertise and authority."

Only time will tell if this administration is really going to allow state experts to continue to air dissenting views. Citizens and the press need to keep a careful eye on whether the public is going to remain privy to the full range of agency opinion. Alaska has benefited from the frank and often heated discussions on development and environmental protection, and we need to make sure state experts remain a part of those debates.

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