Ethics committee recommends opening more meetings

Posted: Tuesday, March 13, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A citizen-dominated ethics committee on Monday recommended opening some now-closed legislative meetings, but the Legislature probably won't adopt those guidelines because most lawmakers on the committee said they go too far.

The guidelines approved by the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics allow caucuses or informal groups of legislators to meet behind closed doors to discuss political strategy. That allowance is required by law, although under the guidelines a closed caucus couldn't vote or agree on a course of action on legislation.

But the guidelines wouldn't allow joint House and Senate majority or minority caucuses to meet in private. And the proposed rules don't let delegations or caucuses from a specific geographic area meet privately if they're voting or agreeing upon a course of action on legislation.

''As far as the public is concerned, it would be nice if everything was open,'' said Shirley McCoy of Juneau, one of the panel's public members.

Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, said the guidelines aren't realistic. He worried a chance meeting in a pizza parlor with other members of the Kenai Peninsula delegation would be against the rules.

''We couldn't even be in a restroom together without noticing a meeting,'' Torgerson said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, disagreed with that interpretation. She said delegation meetings wouldn't be covered by the guidelines as long as the members don't vote or agree on a course of action on legislation.

Rep. Joe Green, R-Anchorage, said the rules could be a problem for delegations of legislators who go to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress. The guidelines would hamstring the Legislature, and wouldn't serve the public, he said.

''They really don't care what goes on,'' Green said, adding that the public elects lawmakers to represent them. He called the guidelines ''something the public doesn't even really want or certainly doesn't need.''

Torgerson worried the guidelines on delegation meetings could slow down the process of reappropriations -- in which legislators from a specific geographic area agree on how to spend any leftover construction projects money from that area.

Legislators from an area typically circulate a memo among their offices, and the Finance Committees agree to their recommendations. Subjecting that process to the guidelines could drag out legislative sessions, Torgerson said.

Kerttula suggested amending the guidelines to make an exception for reappropriations.

McCoy said legislators can make whatever changes they want once it's in their hands. She expressed frustration that the committee has been working on guidelines for several years without coming up with something the Legislature can agree to.

Citizen members of the committee -- Chairman Skip Cook of Fairbanks, McCoy, Connor Thomas of Nome, Tom Owens of Anchorage and Curt Wallace of Kenai -- voted in favor of the guidelines, as did Kerttula. Green, Torgerson and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, voted against them.

The Ethics Committee has submitted proposals to every Legislature since 1994 and the full Legislature has never adopted them, committee staff member Susie Barnett said. The closest legislators came was in 1995 when the House and Senate adopted different versions of guidelines, but didn't agree on a compromise measure.

It will be up to one of the Rules Committees to introduce legislation enacting the latest attempt at open meetings guidelines, then they will go to legislative committees where they can be changed.

Although Kerttula voted for the proposal, she said it doesn't go far enough. She complained about a House Finance Committee meeting Sunday in which three Republican majority members voted with the minority Democrats, then were called to a closed door meeting with Chairman Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage. After the meeting, they changed their votes.

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