Alaska has an open meetings law. If you aren’t familiar with what this is, basically it requires that boards and committees elected by the public must be open to the public. The law is meant to guard the public from a board or committee that wants to close its doors to escape public scrutiny.
One exception to the open meetings law in state statute is if the committee or board is discussing a matter that “would probably prejudice the reputation and character of any person.” For example, if a board discusses the suspension of a student, they would be allowed to do it in what is known as executive session, behind closed doors, since the matter could meet that condition. The public’s right to know isn’t threatened by this exception. Because the public is left out of executive sessions, exceptions to the open meetings law should be carefully defined and used only when absolutely necessary. Recently, the exception wasn’t used the way it should have been used. It was used as a loophole.
On June 25th the Anchorage School Board went to “executive session” to allegedly discuss a matter which “would probably prejudice the reputation and character of any person.” The actual subject matter of the discussion was not mentioned. However, one can speculate that it centered on Board member Pat Higgins and his failure to attend Board meetings in person because he is employed in the Marshall Islands, some 4,000 miles away.
It is questionable that this can be classified as “prejudicing the reputation and character of any person” if it just calls into question Mr. Higgins’ judgment regarding physical presence in the community and at Board meetings. At this time, this is not a character issue. It is a policy call on the part of the Board. As such, the community should be privy to the discussion. The District and the Board are accountable to the community and transparency ensures this accountability.
At the Early Session held by the Anchorage School Board on June 25th, Mr. Higgins phoned in from the Marshall Islands and made no comments during the hour and twenty minute meeting. Discussion centered on the audit process and use of School District property for a charter school, two very important issues to the Anchorage School District.
Those who defend Mr. Higgins claim that the law allows a public official to phone into meetings. This is true. But the reason there is this exception is because of the geography and economy of Alaska. The allowance was not put in place to allow public officials to live outside the state while holding office. The real question is, “Is Mr. Higgins living in Anchorage and part of the community he is representing?”
This is not a matter of discussion that should be carried on behind closed doors. This is a discussion that the Board needs to have on the record, out in the open. The only thing worse than not allowing the public to listen in and comment on these matters as they are discussed by the School Board, is refusing to take action on it.
David Boyle is a Research Associate with the Alaska Policy Forum.