Anti-disclosure legislation heads in wrong direction

What others say

Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Kodiak state Sen. Gary Stevens, a generally thoughtful and moderate member of the Senate Republican majority, offers a perplexing proposal for more government secrecy.

He says the state's financial disclosure laws are keeping ''captains of industry'' off the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute board. He would exempt ASMI from those disclosure laws.

As Sen. Stevens worked up a bill to do that, he also exempted a host of other commissions where members are volunteers. Commissions where members would get to keep their finances totally secret include the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, the Local Boundary Commission, the Municipal Bond Bank Authority, the Commission on Judicial Conduct, the state personnel board, the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority and others.

This is a dangerous move toward secrecy. Just because members are volunteers doesn't mean they lack the power to advance their own or their associates' financial interests.

A member of the local boundary commission, for example, might own property affected by a proposed municipal annexation. A developer on the municipal bond bank authority might be in position to advance financing for his own project. The Alcoholic Beverage Control board is required to have alcohol industry members on it. Conflicts of interest there are inevitable. The public has a strong and legitimate need to know what those conflicts are. Advance disclosure of members' financial interests in that case is essential.

Even Sen. Stevens' exemptions for seemingly innocuous commissions, like those reviewing grants for the arts and public broadcasting, are troublesome. Commissioners may be asked to pass judgment on questions involving groups where commissioners are employees or board members.

No question, there is a trade-off here. Sen. Stevens' bill would reduce the hassle factor for people who have far-flung business interests and might want to enter public service.

But Alaska's financial disclosure rules are more important than ever. The state's attorney general recently resigned because of a conflict of interest that was documented through the financial disclosures he was required to make. Hiding more financial information from the public may expand the pool of people willing to serve on state commissions, but it also expands the opportunity for ethics abuses to go undetected.

State law should err on the side of giving the public more information, not less. If the state's disclosure requirements scare away the occasional high-powered executive or investor, that's a small price to pay for transparency and accountability in state government.

— Anchorage Daily News,

March 14

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