Juneau’s current City Hall is seen on July 13. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

Juneau’s current City Hall is seen on July 13. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Assembly’s transparency deficit disorder

Controversies surrounding CBJ Assembly actions regarding property tax assessments and millage rates, efforts to build expensive public buildings rejected by voters, and spending tax money to influence municipal elections, have all left our city leaders unfazed.

Assembly members continue to ignore growing community concerns expressed at the voting booth and in public testimony. For a group that normally conducts its business by covering all their bases, this seems almost reckless. They have chosen to pursue their agenda with little, if any, public explanation.

The July 10 Assembly meeting provides another example of the lack of transparency that permeates recent decisions. During that meeting, the following ordinances were among those up for public hearings:

• Creating a Short-Term Rental Registration Program

• Authorizing the Manager to Convey Approximately 11.5 Acres of Property Located at Pederson Hill to Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority for Less Than Fair Market Value

• Authorizing the Issuance of General Obligation Bonds in the Principal Amount of Not to Exceed $27,000,000 to Finance Construction and Equipping of a New City Hall

• Appropriating $8,100,000 to the Manager for the Purchase of the Juneau Bone and Joint Center Property

While testimony on these ordinances was not extremely heavy, it was passionate, almost uniformly against, and echoed opinions published recently in the Empire. Six Juneau residents who spoke about the City Hall ordinance opposed it strongly. No one testified in favor of it. Nevertheless, all the ordinances were approved unanimously.

During a break in the meeting it was revealed that at least one Assembly member, probably more, had received emails from the public supporting approvals of some or all of the above ordinances. Traditionally it has been standard practice to provide copies of these emails in the Assembly packet, yet this was not done.

At a minimum, any email, texts, or letters constituting public testimony should be disclosed to the public. If these communications are persuading Assembly members to vote unanimously in favor of ordinances, despite near-unanimous opposition during public hearings, it makes the necessity for this disclosure obvious. How else can the public openly address arguments being made for and against an issue?

With none of the people sending these emails showing up to testify at the public meeting, it leaves the impression they knew their presence was not necessary because the issue had essentially been decided in advance.

Non-disclosure of written communication to Assembly members, for or against any pending action, robs the public of the right to know who is influencing their elected officials. While it may not violate the Open Meetings Act, it certainly flouts the spirit of it.

But that wasn’t the only example of the Assembly’s transparency deficit that night.

Toward the end of the meeting, long after most audience members had left, Mayor Beth Weldon made a surprise announcement nominating former Assembly member Loren Jones to fill the position of resigning member Carole Triem.

There was no discussion of the proposed appointment, and it was unanimously approved.

On its face, there is nothing wrong with filling a vacant Assembly seat, but, with only three regular meetings remaining before the municipal election and the ten-day filing period for seats occurring just four days later, it seemed unusual, unnecessary, and possibly prejudicial.

Jones, a nine-year Assembly veteran, who termed-out in 2020, presumably could keep the seat warm for the next occupant, but what if that happens to be him? Neither Mayor Weldon nor Loren Jones have indicated whether he intends to run again for the seat. If he does, the appointment will confer the huge advantage of incumbency to his campaign.

More than that, it raises the question of whether Assembly members agreed to the appointment in advance.

Given the Assembly’s record thus far, it’s not out of the question.

Why not some Empire opinion pieces from the Mayor or other Assembly members responding to published public concerns? Justify Jones’ appointment, why communications with Assembly members aren’t being disclosed, and why it’s ethical to spend public money on political advocacy.

We hear a lot from the city manager, but very little from the actual decision makers.

Transparency starts with communication and it’s best received earlier in the process, not later.

• After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for KeyBank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular Opinion Page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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