Panel mulls ethical issues

Posted: Monday, April 10, 2006

Early this year, Joyce Anderson made a public disclosure of her membership in the League of Women Voters of Anchorage to the Alaska Legislature Ethics Committee. The admission of membership in the nonprofit political group is public information, available at the committee’s Web site for all to access.

Why does the public need to know that Anderson, who isn’t an elected official, is a member of the league? Because as the administrator for the committee, Anderson is the state legislature’s official ethics advisor.

“The league sometimes takes stances on issues, so I feel I have to disclose that,” Anderson told assembled members of the Alaska League of Women Voters during an ethics panel on Saturday at Soldotna’s Kenai River Center.

The panel, which offered insights into government ethics during lunch on the first day of the league’s annual statewide convention, highlighted how tricky ethics issues in the Legislature can be.

For example, a lobbyist can give a state legislator free tickets to a seminar or take that legislator to lunch during the legislative session. If they give the legislator a gift worth $250 or more, though, that legislator must disclose that gift.

“BP may want to fly a legislator to the North Slope to deal with an issue up there. That’s allowed, it just has to be disclosed,” Anderson said.

Such rules apply even when the lobbyist and the legislator are related.

Beyond being on the board of directors for an organization or accepting gifts, legislators and legislative employees must disclose close economic associations, such as if a legislative employee rents an apartment from a legislator during session. Legislators must also disclose any state grants they or their family members have received, any state loans or benefits they receive or that they’ve agreed to represent a client before a state agency, board or commission.

Such disclosures, as well as the 2004 Open Meetings law that opens most local and state government meetings to the public, are important to maintaining public trust in elected officials and government processes, Anderson said.

Her co-presenter for the panel, Pete Sprague, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly vice president and Alaska Municipal League president, agreed.

“It is our duty to make this as transparent as possible,” Sprague said.

Assembly members, like state legislators, are required to fill out a Public Official Financial Disclosure Statement and file it with the assembly clerk. The statement shows an official’s income sources, business interests, real property interests, beneficial trust interests, loans and loan guarantees and contracts or leases with the state of Alaska.

The information is open to the public, which Sprague said is a tool to help Alaskans keep their elected officials honest.

“It is and it should be easy to hold our feet to the flame,” Sprague said.

Some areas are gray, however. Public officials can vote on issues affecting groups they belong to, as long as those groups are sufficiently large. Last week, the borough voted against a cap on the unlimited property tax exemption for seniors and disabled veterans.

“At least three of our members get (the exemption), but they could vote on it, because it was a larger issue,” he said.

Anderson said state legislators are subject to the same sort of selective scrutiny.

“If you are in a large class of people, like optometrists, you can vote on a bill that covers all optometrists, but if you’re a specialist, and the bill directly affects your specialty, then you cannot vote,” she said.

Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey understands the difference from his own experience as an assembly member in the 1980s. In 1985, a budget crunch prompted the school district to drop all funding for athletics. Carey was a teacher and wrestling coach at the time, and introduced an ordinance to the assembly appropriating about $2 million from the borough to fund the salaries of coaches.

Carey could vote on the proposal as a teacher without the vote being a conflict of interest but, “I was forced to resign as the wrestling coach,” he said.

The Alaska Legislature Ethics Committee has ethics information, including all disclosures filed since 2003, on it Web site at http://ethics.

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