Lawmakers who haven't decided whether they will sign a confidentiality agreement to keep secret a consultant's report that measures Alaska's competitiveness in the world oil and gas market need to consider who it is they work for and then refuse to sign.
Legislators are supposed to be about the public's business. They aren't doing their job if they keep secrets from their bosses, who just happen to be all the citizens of Alaska.
If lawmakers paid for the study knowing there were strings attached, then that was their first mistake. They should have kept the state's money. However, if legislators purchased the study not knowing they would be asked to keep it confidential, then the consultants erred in not fulling informing them. Legislators should return the study and get their money back.
Secret documents and confidentiality agreements just feed popular perceptions about government and elected officials. One such perception is politicians think they know better than the folks who elected them to office. Another is there are parts of the public's business the public doesn't really need to know about.
Most elected officials will say those things are misperceptions about government and they may well be but, the fact is, signing an agreement to keep secret a report that was paid for with public funds does not inspire the public's trust. It breeds contempt for the political process and disenfranchises people from government.
It is concrete evidence that lawmakers do hide things from the people they serve, and that's just plain troubling. If lawmakers keep this study from the public, what else is under wraps that never gets revealed?
The state can't be operated like a private business, and those who do business with the state should know that. When legislators pay for a study, it should become a public record no strings attached and legislators should make that clear from the very start. If a consultant is unwilling to operate under those terms, it shouldn't be doing business with the state.
There's no doubt that the study could provide valuable information to state officials as they make oil and gas policy decisions. But as Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, noted, everyone already knows the basic premise: Alaska isn't that competitive. It's expensive to do business on the North Slope.
What in the study is worth $50,000? Is the study the only source of unbiased information for lawmakers?
Lawmakers have been told that Wood Mackenzie Ltd., the consultant which prepared the study, could hold them liable for damages if the study is made public.
Legislators put themselves in a difficult situation by signing the confidentiality agreement, reading the report and then using what they've read to make decisions. Will all legislative discussions related to oil and gas policy now be closed because legislators fear they'll leak what a consultant has determined to be proprietary information?
That's just not a place where those elected to do the public's business should be.
A report paid for with public dollars should be in the hands of those who paid for it: the public.
How else can the line be drawn?
Certainly, government would be easier and quicker if it didn't have to be done in the open and lawmakers could keep whatever they wanted to secret. But that's not government "of the people, by the people, for the people." It's government in which elected officials tell the public what they want the public to know.
Our elected leaders have a tough job to do. They need the public's help to do their job the public's business well. The best way to tap into that help is ensuring citizens are well informed. They can't be well informed if legislators tell them things like: "We're basing this decision on really sound information. We just can't tell you what that sound information is." And that's just what signing a confidentiality agreement to study the Wood Mackenzie report would do.
Legislators should refuse to sign and decline to do further business with Wood Mackenzie. Secret reports have no place in the business of the public. It really is as simple as that.
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