State Sen. Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage announced Thursday that he plans to file a bill in the coming legislative session that would strengthen the state Public Records Act, providing less leeway when state officials or agencies claim privilege on documents requested by the public. One needn’t look much further than the calendar to understand part of the reason why the senator is making this announcement now — but the fact that politics might be a motivation doesn’t mean strengthening the Public Records Act isn’t a good idea.
The Alaska Public Records Act, a series of laws governing public access to government documents, was passed decades ago in the push to make government more transparent in the wake of national scandals like Watergate. At the time of its passage, Alaska’s law was one of the strongest protections of public access to information in the country. As decades have passed, however, the state’s elected and appointed officials have become far less forthcoming and often outright obstructive to the release of government documents. Perhaps the most extreme example of the erosion of the act’s effect came when media organizations made a public records request in 2008 for emails Gov. Sarah Palin sent relating to the dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. Despite significant public outcry, the emails weren’t released until nearly three years later in 2011 — and then were incomplete, with thousands missing due to claims of “executive and deliberative process,” an oft-cited exception to the Public Records Act.
More recently, and mentioned directly by Sen. Wielechowski, Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration waited 86 days to deny a request by the Alaska Public Radio Network for email communications related to the developing Alaska National Guard scandal. Despite the relatively focused nature of the request, the 10-day statutory limit for approval or denial of records release and the fact that APRN staffers made more than two dozen calls in three months seeking an update on the emails, the governor’s office saw fit to deny it in full. Alaska Public Media and the Alaska Dispatch News are now suing over that denial.
The Legislature itself, however, may be the worst offender in flouting the spirit of open government. The body carved out a whale-sized exemption for itself from the state Open Meetings Act, which requires public access to all meetings of public bodies where decisions are made. Legislators also have claimed their offices are not subject to public records laws.
Sen. Wielechowski said his bill will require a “privilege log” of any documents that state officials or agencies wish to shield from public view and a specific legal justification for doing so. Such a change could be positive in that it puts the onus of claiming privilege on those who generate the documents before they receive requests that they become public. On the other hand, the requirement could accelerate the already widespread practice of claiming privilege on documents that have only tenuous connections to policy discussion.
There are several reasons why Sen. Wielechowski’s bill is unlikely to make it to the governor’s desk. The Democratic senator is in the minority, and minority-sponsored bills are rarely allowed to the floor of the Legislature for a vote. The Legislature, and for that matter governors, have historically displayed little inclination toward making the mechanisms of government more transparent.
But in the wake of scandals showing the clear danger of opacity in government affairs, Alaskans deserve a robust debate about expanding public access to information, particularly the workings of government itself. Sunlight, as they say, has always been the best disinfectant.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,