Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 4:33 PM on Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reminder to council: It's public business


If you were at the Homer City Council meeting Monday night or listened in on KBBI public radio, you might have been confused by one vote the council took. On an ordinance on whether to pay $260,000 to purchase a lot just west of the city's Public Works complex, the council went into executive session "to discuss the price," council member Bryan Zak said in his motion. The lot is appraised at $290,000.

After about 5 minutes behind closed doors, the council emerged. Council member Francie Roberts said the council spoke with City Attorney Tom Klinkner and City Manager Walt Wrede and gave them direction on how to proceed. Then, back again in the public meeting, the council in a 5-0 vote killed the ordinance. No discussion. No open deliberation. What happened?

The city council played a bit loose with Alaska's Open Meetings Act, that's what happened.

Among the problems with the council's action Monday night: Council member Zak's motion didn't include the reason provided by state law for going into executive session, as it should have.

Every time the council — or any other body governed by the Open Meetings Act — goes into a closed-door session it should cite chapter and verse of the state law that allows it to discuss business away from the eyes and ears of the public. The price the council is considering paying for a piece of property doesn't fall into the acceptable reasons.

Presumably, the council was using Alaska Statute 44.62.310(c)(1)(a) — "matters the immediate knowledge of which would clearly have an adverse effect upon the finances of the government unit" — as its reason.

Really? How would a discussion about a lot appraised for $30,000 more than the city was proposing paying have an adverse effect upon the finances of the city? The price the city was offering was no secret. The appraisal was no secret. This had been before the council before.

If the council had sudden misgivings that the city was paying too much the land or that now really wasn't the best time for the city to buy a piece of property or that the city didn't need the property, that's what someone should have said — for the public to hear.

And why didn't the city's attorney discourage the council from a closed-door session?

There's one primary rule that should guide elected officials as they conduct the public's business and it's this: The public's business is the public's business.

The Open Meetings Act should always be "narrowly construed to avoid unnecessary executive sessions and exemptions from coverage of the act." That's in the act's own words.

The act gives this reminder to those who are elected to conduct the public's business: "The people do not give public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and not good for them to know."

The bottom line is this: Any time the council closes the doors to the public, it opens the doors to litigation and widens the perception that government — in general — can't be trusted. Why would the council want to do that?

Former City Attorney Gordon Tans wrote a useful guide on the Open Meetings Act. The city council and its current attorney would do well to review it and the law — and then follow it rigorously.