Public process flawed in southern peninsula shallow gas leases Editorial

Posted: Friday, January 09, 2004

It's fair to ask if the outcry in the southern Kenai Peninsula over shallow gas leases is about development or public process.

The answer may well depend on who one asks, but it's possible that the controversy that's erupted over the leases would at least be taking a different turn had the public been more in tune with what was happening.

There's no evidence that the state tried to circumvent the public process; the letter of the law was followed in giving public notice. However, was the letter of the law adequate?

In this case, no.

Residents of the southern peninsula deserve more than the state provided in the form of legal notice; for example, there was no public notice in Homer's two weekly newspapers. Those public officials who were most in the loop on the issue should have helped spread the word. They should have encouraged public meetings so southern peninsula residents would not have been caught off guard. Surely someone in the know knew what was likely to happen the very thing that is happening now without lots of public participation and involvement from southern peninsula residents.

That, however, leads to other questions: How much notice is adequate notice? At what point has the state met its responsibilities and it's up to citizens to let officials know what they think? Should state and locally elected officials take more responsibility getting the word out to their constituents, particularly if they know something has the potential to become controversial?

People today have access to more information than ever before to help them make responsible civic decisions. That wealth of information, however, can be difficult to sift through. How do Jane and John Q. Public know what they need to know without becoming full-time government watchers? Is it necessary for citizens to pull up the Web sites of every state agency on a daily basis just to make sure government has no surprises in store for them? Will those public notices be written in a language that makes it immediately obvious what's going on and how it affects most citizens?

While newspapers and other media take pride in being government watchers, they are plagued by the same problem of Jane and John Q. Public: too much information and not enough time to sort through it all.

Some Kenai Peninsula Borough officials are worried that the assembly resolution supporting buying back the south peninsula shallow gas leases will send a message to oil and gas companies that the lower peninsula is off limits to development. They should worry more about the message that would be sent to southern peninsula residents without the resolution which passed Dec. 16. Without that resolution, residents get the message that they and the lives they are building on the southern peninsula are of less consequence than the state's economic interests and those of the oil and gas companies.

As assembly members Milli Martin and Chris Moss noted in a memo about Resolution 2003-129, which they sponsored: "While the development of natural resources in Alaska is important, it should be conducted with due regard for other affected property rights."

Moss also pointed out this week that the resolution's message has less to do with what's appropriate development and more to do with what's good government.

Good government is when people are involved in the process from the very beginning. It's not too much to ask that residents weigh in on something as important as the shallow gas leases before a decision is made. Would more public dialogue before the leases were awarded change anyone's mind about whether the leases are "good" or "bad"? It's hard to say, but definitely an opportunity to take the emotionalism out of the issue was missed by not having earlier discussions.

As state officials seek to develop Alaska's resources, they need to be reminded that efficiency is not the goal of good government. Involving the people should be. Good government takes time. Good government can get messy. Good government doesn't assume the people will approve of every government action. In fact, government action should stem from the will of the people.

When government and the people disagree, it's necessary to examine what went wrong and correct it, if possible. There's room for correction in the public process that has governed the shallow gas leases of the southern peninsula. The leases should be bought back and the entire process restarted.

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