“The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.”
– Niels Bohr
Many thanks to Homer City Council members Catriona Reynolds, Gus VanDyke and Bryan Zak for standing up for openness in government Monday night and defeating a motion to go into a closed-door session to discuss city manager applicants.
As Reynolds told the council: “While there may be some value to have discussion in executive session, I prefer most of it be done in public session.”
Elected to the council last October, as a new council member Reynolds attended Alaska Municipal League training, and cited that as to why she voted against the executive session. “The message was, if anyone was applying, they go into the application process knowing it is a public decision,” she said.
Perhaps an AML refresher course is in order for longtime council members Francie Roberts and David Lewis, who voted to go into executive session. Council member Beau Burgess was not at the meeting.
Another motion to go into executive session is on the council’s Feb. 9 agenda. This time it’s to view public comments pertaining to city manager applicants along with a lawsuit that has nothing to do with the manager post.
We urge the council not to go into executive session for the purpose of viewing those public comments. Did the council or the City Manager Selection Committee give citizens who chose to submit written comments on the applicants any indication that their comments would not be part of the public record? If so, when? And under what authority? We know of nothing in state law or city code that would keep those written comments out of the public record. In fact, just the opposite.
Alaska law is very clear about public records and lists four main exceptions to the general policy of disclosure: records of vital statistics and adoption proceedings; records pertaining to juveniles; medical and related public health records; and records required to be kept confidential by a federal law or regulation or by state law.
While the law also has other exceptions, such as law enforcement records to protect the right to a fair trial, we don’t see that any of the exceptions apply to citizen comments made about applicants to high-profile, public positions like that of city manager.
In Doe vs. Alaska Superior Court, the Alaska Supreme Court said: “We conclude that the right of privacy is not implicated when an individual voluntarily sends an unsolicited letter to a public official commenting on a public issue such as the appointment of a state officer.”
It’s likely anyone filing a public records request for those written comments about Homer city manager applicants would win in a court appeal. Just as it is helpful to hear what citizens say before the council makes a decision on any topic, it would be helpful to read what citizens wrote about the applicants before the council makes a decision. There’s no reason to exclude them from the public discussion about the applicants.
While we’re pleased that at least some on the Homer City Council understand the limitations of executive session, we’re also concerned that there’s no evidence the council narrowed the list of applicants for the job to four finalists in a public session, which taints the whole process.
We ask the council to heed the advice of Kathie Wasserman, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, who said of discussing city manager applicants: “As much of it as possible should be in front of everyone. There should be a very fine line when they go into executive session.”
We ask council members to not cross that line.