- Associated Press - Friday, March 20, 2015

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - The people of Alaska do not yield authority easily to anyone, a reality fittingly recognized by the Alaska Legislature in the state’s Open Meetings Act.

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them,” the 1972 Legislature wrote into the act. “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

The act requires almost any government body consisting of elected or appointed officials to open their meetings to any member of the public who wishes to attend.

This requirement extends broadly to most decision-making bodies in the state as well as most advisory boards, but it has its limits. While the act requires open meetings from controlling boards like the University of Alaska Board of Regents, it does not require open meetings from all UA staff. The act recognizes that opening every day-to-day meeting of employees would be neither feasible nor enforceable.

In Alaska, members of the public have both the right to attend government meetings and the right to speak before the body holding the meeting.

To prevent boards from meeting in secret, state laws require governing bodies to provide “reasonable notice.” While not specifically defined in statute, the minimum allowable notice for an average meeting appears to be three days, according to an Alaska open government guide prepared by media law attorney John McKay.

By far the most cited abuse of the Open Meetings Act occurs through an exception provided explicitly in the act - the right to meet in executive session. For bodies governed by the act, there is only one way to meet with a quorum of members in private: the executive session.

While boards often misuse - wittingly or not - executive session allowances, they are often a legitimate necessity. State statute allows executive sessions in several cases: for example, when the matters being discussed clearly would have adverse effects on the finances of the government unit if the information were immediately made public or when discussing a personnel matter that could harm the reputation of an employee.

In order for a board to legally convene in executive session, the board must first meet in open session. When voting to reconvene behind closed doors, the body must provide the reason “clearly and with specificity,” according to the law, without defeating the purpose of meeting privately. The reason must align with one of the specific exemptions allowed in statute.

The Alaska Open Meetings Act has been amended several times during the years. Fairbanks North Star Borough Assemblyman John Davies was serving in the Legislature when the act was amended in 1994 and was one of the sponsors of the bill amending the act.

“I do think that our open meetings laws right now are pretty robust,” Davies said.

McKay, who has been taking open records and open meetings cases in Alaska for decades, said it’s hard to judge how well open meetings laws are working because he doesn’t hear anything about them when they work well. He believes there always will be some kind of issue with disclosure laws.

“There’s always going to be issues,” McKay said. “Every meeting, every conversation of public officials is potentially the subject of a question of whether they’re complying with (disclosure) laws.”

David Cuillier, the Freedom of Information Committee Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, spends much of his time researching public meetings laws throughout the country. His opinion of open meetings laws in the United States is less than optimistic, largely because most open meetings laws lack teeth.

In Alaska, the only real consequence of violating the Open Meetings Act is the possibility the court will void the action taken by the body if someone files a lawsuit.

“That’s the case in a lot of states, and that’s just not good enough. If you and I get caught speeding or burglarizing a house, we get punished. If they get caught, they get away with it,” Cuillier said. “I think (public disclosure laws) are violated more than speeding laws.”

Cuillier and organizations like the Student Press Law Center are fighting to improve and reform public disclosure laws. Cuillier thinks, at this point, the most effective way to improve disclosure laws would be to scrap them and start fresh.

Frank LaMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, has been pushing stringently for reform of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The act, while meant to manage the privacy and accessibility of student records, is often misused to prevent the release of information that should be public record, LaMonte said. He worries what will become of disclosure laws in the internet era, where privacy fears have outstripped concerns of secrecy.

“We’re at a really weird time in culture where the interest in government accountability and transparency is taking a back seat to people’s paranoia about how their data might be used,” LaMonte said. “People are pushing for more and greater privacy, and almost nobody is pushing the other way, trying to argue for disclosure and more public access.”

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Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

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