Public needs to weigh in on public records code

After years of relying on State of Alaska code, the city of Soldotna is amending its municipal code to establish a process for responding to open records requests.

In a city where some recent personnel decisions have attracted quite a bit of public scrutiny with very little substantive information released to the public — including the sudden 2012 removal of former police chief John Lucking, and the sudden termination of longtime librarian Terri Burdick in 2013 — continued access to the vast majority of the city’s records should be of paramount importance.

Especially when those records could indicate how employees in the city are making decisions to manage a municipality funded primarily with money from the public.

Decisions about hiring and firing are typically considered protected information. But without more transparent guidelines for communicating the potential reasons for an employee’s departure, city administration has established a pattern of refusing to explain decisions about the employment of people who — in the case of Burdick, drew broad support within the community.

Federal and state laws require public institutions to be held to higher standards of disclosure specifically because they are funded using public money and the spirit of the “sunshine laws” is predicated on the idea that the public deserves to know what’s happening at all levels of government.

The people of the state do not cede their right to open, transparent government when they hire public servants to administer that government, nor do those public servants have the right to decide which records are good for the public to have and which are not.

City Clerk Shellie Saner said the new standards were written using state statutes and what is already in place in the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the city of Kenai.

“Nothing has changed. We’ll still be handling everything the same, it’s just to put in our code how we’re handling requests,” she said.

It’s a good start, but updates to the city’s open records code crafted without the step-by-step involvement of the public or legal counsel well versed in the code and spirit of the state’s open records laws is tantamount to allowing the fox watch over the henhouse.

Public institutions in the state have not had the best track record of responding to records requests — especially in the face of national attention. A 2008 article by the Center for Public Integrity listed the most egregious shenanigans offices have attempted upon receiving open records requests including an attempt by the governor’s office to charge a state public employee union $88,000 for records that “may or may not have indicated (then) Governor Sarah Palin illegally accessed personnel files.” Emails between state employees and the McCain campaign headquarters would cost the Associated Press $15 million and another $15 million for access to emails between state employees and the National Park Service, according to the list.

While the city may not ever try to charge millions for a request, changes made to the city’s code now could impact residents for years to come and it is incumbent upon the people affected to weigh in on the process — even if only to remind public servants that they are subordinate to the will of the people whose lives they govern.

A public hearing on the ordinance, 2014-001, will be held Jan. 22 at 6 p.m. in the city council chambers. Saner said a city council member is working on amendments to the proposed code.

“If they’re substantive, we’ll ask for postponement so we can give the public more to digest the changes,” she said.

The proposed code can be found on the city of Soldotna’s website at http://ci.soldotna.ak.us/agendas/council_agenda/14ORD001.pdf.

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