Armed with an opinion from an Alaska Public Offices Commis-sion staffer, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly made it clear Tuesday that it will spend borough funds to send parents and students to Juneau to lobby on behalf of borough schools.
Despite concerns raised that doing so might make those spokespersons lobbyists in the eyes of state law, the assembly said it is a legitimate expenditure of public funds.
Members voted 7-1 to amend a January motion that approved spending up to $10,000 for lobbying travel expenses. That motion had not included a reference to parents and students. The revised motion does.
A trip had been planned for last week in which a group of 11 parents and two students were to go to the state capital on borough-bought airline tickets to make a pitch for increased school funding. That trip was called off because it was unclear whether the borough could legally spend public funds to send parents to lobby lawmakers. A group of eight school district employees and elected officials went instead.
Mayor Dale Bagley nixed the trip when initial contacts with APOC appeared to show the parents would be considered lobbyists if the borough paid their way. Meanwhile, schools Superinten-dent Donna Peterson had expressed concern that it might be too early in the session to send a large contingent of parents to Juneau on behalf of schools.
With their trip canceled, parents contacted APOC to inquire further about the lobbying issues and received a letter March 11 from Tammy Kempton, the Juneau branch administrator of APOC, to the effect that parents could go to Juneau on the borough's ticket provided their lobbying stayed within certain bounds.
"A group of parents coming to Juneau to meet with legislators whose travel expenses are being paid by the school district are not employees of the district and do not have a lobbying contract with the district," Kempton said.
Strictly speaking, the travel expenses were to be, and will be paid by the borough general fund budget, not the school district budget. Specifically, the money will come from the assembly's budget.
According to Kempton, as long as a person does not lobby a lawmaker for more than four hours in a 30-day period, he or she would not be considered a lobbyist. However, if that or other limits might be exceeded, registering as a lobbyist takes virtually no time and no expense and could be done quickly to avoid conflict with lobbying regulations.
Kempton also said that exemptions to the lobbying law appear to apply in the case of the parents. Nothing in the law prevents constituents from discussing the advisability of passing legislation with members of the Legislature.
Kempton advised, however, that her letter did not constitute a formal advisory opinion. The final authority for interpreting lobbying regulations rests with the commission.
Assembly member Grace Merkes of Sterling said the she did not recall the original January motion including any discussion about sending parents. She said she did not vote to send parents to Juneau.
Assembly President Tim Navarre of Kenai said he didn't think there was any question the intent was to use the money to lobby on behalf of the school district and that parents and students would go. He took aim at Bagley's decision not to send the parents.
"If people want to cut hairs, what made me the maddest out of all this ... nobody called me as the president of the assembly or anybody else to ask what the interpretation of that law (was)," Navarre said. "They just started throwing it out there and said this is what our decision is going to be. It's a d--- assembly budget and a d--- assembly decision, and for it to have been circumvented by somebody else and by policy without bringing it back to the assembly was not fair."
Navarre said it amounted to much more than a misunderstanding.
Bagley said Wednesday that the thing he and Borough Attorney Colette Thompson were concerned about was whether the original motion adequately addressed whether someone other than school district or borough officials were entitled to go on the borough dollar.
He said he tried to get hold of Navarre, but could not until a day or so after the trip had to be canceled.
As for sending parents to lobby on behalf of schools, Bagley said he was not enthused by the idea.
"If that is something the school district and the assembly want to do, that's their call," he said.
Bagley said he's concerned about who is chosen to go and how. Those things, he said, he did not recall being discussed at the January meeting.
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