Alaska editorial: Officials need refresher on open-meeting laws

Posted: Thursday, October 19, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Ketchikan Daily News:

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Now that all of the new electees have been sworn into local office, it's an appropriate time to do our at-least annual reminder about the state's open meetings law.

Though we don't expect local politicians to be lawyers, we do expect them to know the law that governs their meetings, the Alaska Open Meetings Act. We've found that most, once they understand the law, are eager to do their jobs the right way. We understand that many don't make the time, until it becomes an issue, to see what that law actually says.

That's why each year we provide the simple means for each official to become familiar with the law. It doesn't hurt for the public to understand it, either. Although regular folks rarely spend their dinnertime discussing such things as mill rates and ordinances, that doesn't mean they don't want their business conducted in public.

The state's law is blessedly clear in its intent that the public's business should, indeed, be conducted in public, and that the public servants do not decide what is best for us to know. The law is clear that elected officials are our servants, not our betters.

There are some cases in which closed meetings are allowed. State law allows what it calls "executive sessions" for very specific instances. The provision for such sessions, the statute says, "shall be construed narrowly in order to effectuate the policy (of the presumption of openness) ... and to avoid exemptions from open meeting requirements and unnecessary executive sessions" (AS 44.62.310 (c)). The specific reasons allowed for an executive session are to discuss:

"(1) matters, the immediate knowledge of which would clearly have an adverse effect upon the finances of the public entity;

(2) subjects that tend to prejudice the reputation and character of any person, provided the person may request a public discussion;

(3) matters which by law, municipal charter, or ordinance are required to be confidential;

(4) matters involving consideration of government records that by law are not subject to public disclosure."

Courts have held that the reason must be specified in the motion for an executive session.

For instance, talking about salaries would not qualify under No. 1. Discussing employees generally would not qualify under No. 2, in fact, the specific person to be discussed must be named in the motion, and that person must be informed about the possibility of an executive session to discuss him or her; that person can demand that the discussion not be held in secret.

No action can be taken in an executive session. And courts have held that actions taken to circumvent the law - one-on-one meetings or e-mails to discuss public business secretly, then taking action after little public airing of the issue, are not in keeping with the law.

A reading of the statutes (also easily found online) can guide elected officials; the intent of the law, clearly, is that meetings be open.

We know that because there is a strong statement of legislative intent, a statement of which every official - and every citizen - can be proud. Things that can't be said openly and professionally in the context of the public's business perhaps shouldn't be said. Doing what must be done sometimes is uncomfortable, but those who have run for office already know that; they've laid open their own lives for us to see, and now their work for us must be open, too.

Best of luck to our new and continuing public officials. We've elected you because we trust you; we know you can do the job well - which is partly to say, openly.

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