Alaska is no stranger to public scandals. A decade ago, we discovered oil executives were bribing lawmakers. In 2014, the National Guard sex assault scandal made headlines. Now we’re discovering why inmates are dying in Alaska’s prisons.
These problems happened because secrecy trumped transparency. That must change.
Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, a period committed to promoting transparency in government and the free flow of information. Although Alaska has traditionally scored low when it comes to transparency, there have been a few bright spots in the past year, including one in Juneau.
Before deciding whether to remove former Juneau Planning Commission chairwoman Nicole Grewe on Feb. 29, a few Assembly members wanted to have the conversation in closed session. City Attorney Amy Mead was there to warn that open meetings laws required the conversation be public.
Mead’s upholding of the law, for us, was a sigh of relief in a state where often-ambiguous exemptions let public officials off the hook, and the only public recourse involves a courtroom.
We understand why some members of the Assembly wanted to talk about the situation in private. Assemblyman Jerry Nankervis perhaps summed it up best when he said, “This goes against my belief that you praise in public and criticize in private.”
If government operated like the private sector that would be true, but the Assembly made Grewe a public official the moment she was named to the Planning Commission. Her removal also is a public issue.
Juneau citizens, Planning Commission members, and even Grewe, had a right to know the reasoning behind the Assembly’s decision. Making a decision without explaining “why” leaves too many unanswered questions, and in some cases could bring the Assembly’s motivation and reasoning into question.
If someone is removed from a public post, there should be good reason. Residents have the right to know what that reason is.
In regard to Grewe’s removal, we agree with the decision made, but only because we know the “why.”
“The public trust and trust of the other commissioners has been broken, and it’s up to us to try and remedy that, as uncomfortable as that might be,” Nankervis said of Grewe’s removal.
Said Assemblyman Loren Jones: “There was some real damage done. I’m not sure that this action repairs it, but I’m not sure it can be repaired without this.”
Without attorney Mead’s intervention, it’s likely those statements and others would never have been heard by the public.
There were a few bright spots at the state level in 2015 as well, and we have Gov. Bill Walker to thank. For years, information about the prisoners who died in Department of Corrections custody was withheld from the press and families of the dead. Walker made the state’s investigation public, and released videos showing the deaths so the public would know what happened. He did this against the wishes of some state officials who would have preferred to hide behind ambiguous privacy and confidentiality exemptions.
Alaska still has a long way to go to improve transparency. At the state and federal level, citizens too often lose access to information that doesn’t reflect positively on government or those elected to lead it. Access to information is a right, not a privilege. Sunshine Week is intended to remind of us that and empower citizens to fight for transparency in government.