Judge: Meetings can be taped

Flight noise mediation talks in limbo after open meetings ruling

Posted: Thursday, December 14, 2000

The state's Open Meetings Act applies to Juneau's ongoing flight-noise mediation sessions and allows them to be tape-recorded, a judge decided Wednesday. But whether the meetings will continue is up in the air.

Douglas resident Hugh Malone filed suit last month to keep the city and Triangle Associates consultant Lois Schwennesen from barring tape-recording of the sessions. In Wednesday's ruling, Jay Rabinowitz, a retired member of the state Supreme Court, found City Attorney John Corso's assertion that the mediation design team was not a governmental body and therefore not subject to the open meetings act unconvincing.

Rabinowitz also gave short shrift to an argument that allowing tape recording might cause the city injury by stifling the mediation process. Citing a similar case, Rabinowitz found the assertion to be "belied by common sense."

At a Wednesday afternoon meeting before the ruling was released, Schwennesen, responding to a panel-member's question as to what would happen in future, said, "I think it's very possible that this process just ends."

Schwennesen cited her concern with three disagreements among members in establishing ground rules: whether all mediation sessions could be closed; who would speak for the process to the media; and whether mediation sessions would be taped.

This morning she canceled today's meeting.

"Today I received the last of the nine caucus responses to the question about the preferred option to move forward," she said in a written statement. "It is not clear at this time whether it is possible to move forward."

At a sparsely attended public meeting in Centennial Hall on Wednesday night, after the court ruling was made known, flight operators made no bones about how they viewed the court's decision to open the meetings.

"People take things out of context all the time," said helicopter operators' representative Bob Berto. "Just read the papers or listen to the news."

Fixed-wing-aircraft representative Bob Jacobson reflected on the court's definition of the panel as a "governmental" body, saying he was not a governmental official, and that he was a volunteer.

Jacobson also objected to Schwennesen's questions to the audience about expanding the panel's constituencies. "If we get this group too big, it's going to get even more uncontrollable than it is now," he said.

Schwennesen listed four options open to the panel.

The first, no action, would accept the impasse and halt further efforts at collaboration.

The second would try again for consensus on disputed ground rules, which center on the degree to which meetings should be open. Some of that dispute may have been settled by the court ruling.

The third would modify the mediation team membership to include the parties that agree on ground rules and by extension exclude those that don't. The change would "begin a mediation process as soon as possible in order to have some effect on the 2001 season," Schwennesen said.

The last option would replace the mediation process with a more public, facilitated process.

"I don't think we're going to solve a lot of problems for 2001," Jacobson said. "Maybe in five years we'll solve 30, 40 or 50 percent."

Schwennesen will continue to work with the caucuses.

Mediation panel members represent a number of constituencies, including conservation, fixed-wing aircraft operators, helicopter operators, city business interests, two citizens' groups, the cruise lines, the city and the U.S. Forest Service.

Fernand Chandonnet may be reached at fchandonnet@juneau-empire.com.

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