My Turn: The Empire was just doing its job

Article about acting DOT commissioner informed public about a real conflict of interest

Posted: Tuesday, December 26, 2006

I would like to respond to those who are criticizing the Juneau Empire for printing the article about John MacKinnon and his financial connection to the proposed road north that would end, for an indefinite period of time, at the Kensington Mine and MacKinnon family property.

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To read some recent letters to the editor, you would think the Empire accused MacKinnon, acting commissioner of the Department of Transportation, of wrongdoing or otherwise attacked his character. It did not.

The article did inform the public about a real conflict of interest held by an acting commissioner. In short, it did what a newspaper is supposed to do, it put the public on notice that there is a situation they may want to pay attention to.

Having a conflict of interest is not illegal or a violation of civil ethics regulations. As far as we know, John has not violated any official ethics rules. He said he has avoided doing so by divulging his conflict and attending only "informational" meetings about the road. But without going into whether John did or did not, or will or will not do anything unethical or illegal, the fact is a person in his position wields considerable power.

An official's mere presence can have a chilling effect on employees who know that their boss has a certain inclination or conflict. It can be enough to stifle healthy debate on an issue and alter the outcome.

Much influence can be exerted behind the scene in other ways that does not technically rise to the level of a crime or civil ethics violation. Even if it did, it would be hard to prove. It may be easier to prove, however, if the public is alert and aware of the situation. And what is legally adequate is not necessarily acceptable to the public. But the public cannot act on something it's ignorant about. It has a right and a need to know information about where an official's sympathies may lie on issues of policy.

So the Empire should not be condemned for doing its job. In fact we should thank the newspaper.

If one wants to lay blame, he or she should question the judgment of any governor who would proceed with an appointment knowing a conflict such as the one between MacKinnon and the road exists. Such conflicts, whether real or perceived, can be damaging to the individuals involved and to public confidence in the democratic process. They simply should be avoided.

In my opinion, with all due respect to Mr. MacKinnon, former Gov. Frank Murkowski made a mistake by appointing him deputy commissioner of transportation when the road is one of Juneau's most contentious issues. Gov. Sarah Palin has perpetuated Murkowski's mistake by appointing MacKinnon acting commissioner.

I don't blame the Empire's critics for wanting to stand up for their friend and colleague. But folks should realize this is less about John's personal ethics and more about good government and the public's right to know.

• Skip Gray is past co-chairman and founding member of Friends of Berners Bay and past president and founding member of Alaskans for Juneau, a group that for 10 years scrutinized the A-J and Kensington mines.



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