Jan. 31, 2002 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner criticizes House members for closed meeting

Posted: Monday, February 04, 2002

For all intents and purposes, it was the entire Alaska House of Representatives that gathered together Wednesday evening to mull over the state's fiscal problems.

That in itself certainly isn't unusual, as the Legislature is in session. So, meeting together in Juneau is not only likely, it is expected. And since the hot topic so far has been the state's budget, that is no surprise either.

What is unusual -- and highly disappointing -- is that virtually all of the legislators met yesterday behind closed doors, preventing the public or the media from hearing their discussions and debates.

The meeting was scheduled as a House Joint Caucus. The two-party caucuses routinely meet -- sometimes behind closed doors -- to discuss a variety of issues and strategies. Because no votes are taken, this is allowed.

However, in this case, both caucuses met together -- which means essentially the entire House of Representatives convened.

Debate about whether the party caucuses should be allowed to meet in private is nothing new. But even taking the leap that, yes, caucuses can in fact meet with the doors closed, this takes it to the extreme. At what point do the two caucuses stop being all the Democrats meeting together and all the Republicans meeting together and start being the entire House circumventing the public's right to know? That line has been crossed here.

Lawmakers said the goal is to map out a bipartisan strategy for passage of a fiscal plan. It is good that dialogue is beginning, but it is no excuse for robbing the public of this important debate.

There are a couple of important facts to consider. One, the state of Alaska is facing a serious budget situation. And two, legislators are going to have to make some difficult decisions in the very near future in order to make up the estimated $1 billion hole in the budget. Likely options include raising taxes, cutting services, curtailing permanent fund dividend checks or some combination of these ideas or others floating out there.

Whatever the final solution, it is highly likely that some of these decisions will not be popular. The state's open-meetings policy outlines clearly the public's right to know. But perhaps most glaring is this from Sec. 44.62.312, ''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.''

As this clearly and simply states, it is not up to elected officials to decide what the public is or is not allowed to know.

By having the two caucuses join together legislators appear to have found a way to meet without subjecting themselves to open meetings rules (although even that could be open to interpretation). By doing so, they are committing a real disservice to their constituents.

Alaskans deserve the opportunity to hear the debate in its fullest. If lawmakers have something to say about the state's fiscal situation -- and we certainly hope that they do -- then they should say it in a public forum. And they should give Alaskans more credit for their ability to hear the open debate and make informed decisions based on the facts.

Open and public exchanges of ideas are needed to solve the state's looming problems. Secrecy and closed sessions will only compound the public's lack of trust whatever solution is reached. ------

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