You have a right to know and be heard

My turn

Posted: Tuesday, December 05, 2000

Most Juneau folk would agree flightseeing noise is an issue of public concern. It affects some more than others. Some people benefit greatly from flightseeing, others pay the price.

This fall, in a stated attempt to develop proposals to deal with flightseeing noise, the City and Borough of Juneau, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, established a mediation effort, which is facilitated by Seattle consultants Triangle and Associates.

According to Triangle, "The purpose of mediation is to develop a recommended package of workable solutions, not to set public policy." In other words, the panel is advisory to CBJ and the USFS. CBJ has, so far, committed $71,484 of public CBJ tax funds for this project, as far as I can tell.

The members of the mediation panel have held three meetings, all during working hours (9-5). The group has allowed the public to attend the meetings, but has not allowed the public to keep a record of the proceedings. The panel has not kept a complete record of its own.

On Nov. 6, a member of the public attempted to record the public presentations. He was ordered by the city manager to leave the meeting. The CBJ attorney advised the panel that the meetings were not required to be open to the public and said a member of the public had no right to record the meetings.

The panel's next meeting is Wednesday, Dec. 6, at the Glacier Visitor Center, from 9:30 a.m. to noon. The panel is to decide then whether to continue with negotiations.

Under the proposed rules, meetings could be closed to the public at the convenience of the panel. No complete record of either the closed or open sessions would be kept, nor would any member of the public be allowed to keep a complete record. In the proposed schedule, there are only two evening meetings where public comment would be taken.

The effect would be to limit public attendance and participation. They would deny to people the opportunity to review why and how specific recommendations were developed, and whom they would benefit.

Most Americans would agree that our country is founded on freedom. Ultimately, freedom is founded on information.

James Madison, regarded as the chief writer and guide for our country's constitution, put it this way: "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both."

Getting government officials to recognize the public's right to know has been a long process.

Peter Zenger was prosecuted in 1735 for criticizing the governor of New York. The jury decided to free Zenger, in spite of the British law which allowed no criticism of the government.

The First Amendment in our Bill of Rights was adopted partly to protect against this sort of censorship by our government. In spite of this, the Federalists adopted the Sedition Act in 1798 to prevent people publishing criticisms of government. Peoples' anger over this law helped sweep the Federalists from power two years later, and the act expired.

In 1966, the Freedom of Information Act passed, giving citizens rights to the files of their federal government. President Johnson signed the bill, noting that "... a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the Nation permits. No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest...."

Today, all states have open meeting and freedom of public information laws.

In 1972, Congress adopted a law requiring federal advisory groups to conduct open meetings. In 1976, Congress enacted the Government in the Sunshine Act, which opened the meetings of multi-member federal agencies to the public.

All of the open government meeting laws allow for closed meetings where necessary to protect the public interest, or where open discussion of a topic might be unfair to an individual person or company.

Alaska was one of the leading states on opening public meetings. The first state legislature enacted the Alaska Open Meeting in 1959. Alaska law contains some pointed language as a guide to those who would conduct the public business, stating "the people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know."

If you think the City and Borough of Juneau should follow the policy of open government in developing answers to the problem of increasing flightseeing noise, tell your assembly member. Write a letter to the paper. Talk to your friends. Come and tell the panel you want open meetings. In other words, make your voice heard.

Juneau resident Hugh Malone is a former speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives.

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