Disclosure vs. privacy

Kenai officials do not want to publicize earnings

Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why should a Kenai Peninsula mayor be required to report the amount of her husband's Social Security check?

How safely could a city councilman travel in a Third World country if his total worth were available for all to see on the Internet?

These are questions being asked at Kenai City Hall as public officials there begin filling out 12-page financial disclosure forms now required by the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

"What the state of Alaska is asking is a true invasion of privacy," said Mayor Pat Porter during last week's Kenai City Council meeting.

"Is it anyone's business what the amount of my husband's Social Security check is?" she asked rhetorically.

Under new state disclosure regulations enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor last July, public officials including borough and city mayors, members of assemblies, councils, planning and zoning commissions and school boards in home-rule municipalities and city-borough governments; candidates for election to these offices; and elected members of public utility boards must file the annual statements by Saturday.

Porter said, "It's the state's intent to publish the information on the Internet.

"Not one person sitting up here was informed of the new rules," she said, speaking of herself and city council members.

Councilman Barry Eldridge, who has traveled to South America on missionary work for his church and expects to do so in the future, expressed concern for his safety if his financial information is made public to anyone and everyone who has access to the Internet.

Public officials must report gross earnings and a complete description of what their jobs entail; self-employment income exceeding $1,000; rental income; dividends and interest; gifts valued at more than $250; for-profit and nonprofit business interests; real estate and real estate sold during the previous year; beneficial interests in trusts and retirement accounts; loans, loan guarantees and debts; and leases.

The information must be reported for the office holder, his or her spouse and for dependent children living at home.

"It is my intention to ask for a special election to withdraw from the state requirement," Porter said.

A municipality may exempt its officers from the disclosure requirements if a majority of those voting in a special or regular election agree.

Porter said the council can opt the city clerk and city attorney out of the requirement, but other city officials and the council members may only be made exempt by a vote of the people.

About one-half of Alaska's 200 communities have voted to be exempt from state disclosure requirements, including Homer, Kachemak and the city of Kodiak.

City Councilman Rick Ross said he agrees with the mayor, that the requirement is "very intrusive."

Councilman Bob Molloy also agrees, but said if exempting Kenai is to be put to a vote of the people, "we should offer a less-intrusive form of disclosure" as an alternative for Kenai voters to consider.

Several council members and Porter discussed whether they would have run for public office knowing the requirements under the new Comprehensive Ethics Act of 2007, and Councilman Hal Smalley said, "I have a feeling it will affect those considering running for office in the future."

The council agreed to have city administration draft language that would appear on the ballot to seek voter approval for exempting Kenai officials from the disclosure requirement.

After some debate, the council decided to have the measure appear on the general election ballot in the fall rather than schedule a special election on the single issue before then.

Ross pointed out that the requirement for 2007 disclosure already is in place and must be made by Saturday.

Included with the 12-page disclosure packet from APOC is a statement of purpose: "Disclosure requirements are a long-standing ethical and legal tradition in Alaska with broad support. The 2007 Comprehensive Ethics Act passed the Legislature unanimously. Good, open, fair and honest government calls for these disclosures. The law mandates them. The public supports them."

"Hopefully our citizens will realize how intrusive this is into our private lives," Porter said.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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