Assembly should put public interest ahead of private secrets

Posted: Sunday, February 25, 2001

It was legal, but was it right?

If nothing else, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly's decision to go into executive session to interview the top two contenders for a private prison project and then discuss their proposals was disappointing.

Assembly members can talk all day about contract specifics, borough code, proprietary information and competitive advantages as they justify Friday's nine-and-a-half-hour meeting, but the fact is they shut the public out of an important part of one of the biggest proposals to come down the pike in a long time.

The private prison proposal is not ordinary borough business. The assembly is treading new ground in Alaska, and that's exactly why it should be zealous in taking the public with it every step of the way. Without public support at each twist and turn, the project will be hounded by doubts and suspicions. Is that what the assembly wants?

The assembly may have had all its questions answered about the competing proposals and the groups submitting them, but did the public? Was the public even afforded the opportunity to ask questions of the borough's potential partners in a private prison?

It's hard to understand what competitive advantage the assembly hoped to protect among those submitting proposals once those proposals were in the borough's hands. Besides, protecting the competitive interests of private businesses wanting to do business with the borough should not supersede the assembly's primary job -- which is protecting the public's interests.

It's a reasonable expectation that private businesses should be willing to give up some of their privacy if they want to partner with a public entity such as borough government.

That some members of the public oppose and have questions about the proposed prison project was evidenced in Tuesday's assembly meeting. Two Homer residents urged the assembly to consider the arguments against private prisons and their track record elsewhere.

Has the borough become a government of squeaky wheels? In other words, does it take an assembly chambers full of residents protesting a proposal and asking questions before the assembly becomes responsive? Or, can two people make a reasonable request and be heard?

The Homer residents made a reasonable request. Before embarking on a brand new venture, any wise business person would want to know how similar businesses fared and what could be done to avoid the mistakes of others.

Shouldn't the $100,000-consultant already hired by the assembly be warning of potential pitfalls and looking at the track record of existing private prisons? Don't assembly members want to be absolutely sure of what they're getting themselves -- and consequently the entire borough -- into? If the project goes forward -- and assembly members continue to say it is not a done deal -- won't it be a better project for having examined the failures, as well as the successes, of private prisons?

The assembly is right to pursue the potential of a private prison project. It will best protect the public's interest in the project, however, by making sure full, open discussions about the proposal are held every step of the way. Considering the negatives should be part of the process.

In doing business with a private entity, the assembly appears to think it must act like a private business. On the contrary, assembly members need to remember who it is they serve. In electing them to office, borough residents did not give assembly members the power to decide what the public should and should not know. They did not give up their right to be informed. They did not abdicate power; being fully informed enables the public to retain control of those they elect to office.

What the assembly does is the public's business, and the assembly should be conducting that business in full view of their stakeholders -- who just happen to be all residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

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