Bill Seeks to Silence Constituents (My Testimony)
Saturday at 9:00 am, members of the public stood in long lines to sign up to testify at the Loussac Library. It was the first public meeting of the year for the Anchorage Legislative Caucus. The meeting was called so the legislators could hear from their constituents before they headed off to Juneau in two weeks for the start of the legislative session.
It was clear that the main issue on the minds of the majority of the approximately 150 people who showed up, was education. Teachers, parents, students from the Service High Seminar Program, professors, doctors and other members of the community all testified about the underfunding of Alaska education and the toll it would take on the community as well as the future Alaska economy.
However, many others came to testify regarding bills that were already sitting in committee as well as the new bills pre-filed by legislators for the new session.
While there were many issues I wished to speak on, each of us only had three minutes to make our pitch. I chose to speak on one of the pre-filed bills, HB 235, courtesy of Rep. Pete Higgins, R-Fairbanks. Below is my testimony:
“Good Morning! My name is Linda Kellen Biegel and I thank the Legislators for this opportunity to speak.
“I am here today because I am alarmed at the introduction of HB 235. It is a bill that would not only restrict the public from records currently available to them at the Alaska Public Offices Commission, but would also make hearings of elected officials that are presently open to the public confidential. In addition, this bill would punish any filer who was to discuss a pending complaint with his/her fellow citizens by dismissing that complaint. This is of particular concern to me due to my past experience with APOC.
“In October 2010, I filed a complaint against a powerful sitting legislator for APOC violations regarding advertisements during his 2010 campaign. I also filed against other members of his campaign staff because my research provided clear evidence that they were direct participants in these violations.
“The first report, and conclusions from the APOC staff, seemed to miss much of that evidence and mostly acquitted the legislator. The APOC staff posted that report in advance of the hearing (as is current procedure), which allowed me to do further research to counter the report. That further research actually included information from APOC’s own staff report and their website. However, it also included an outside newspaper which ran the ads. After my rebuttal testimony, the Commission rejected the staff report and told them to try again. Almost a year later, the legislator settled with APOC, and as part of that settlement he was the only one fined for the violations. The others were just required to take APOC training.”
That outcome would not be possible under this new bill:
– APOC would be unable to make their interim staff report on their website, preventing members of the public from pointing out errors,
– A filer would be unable to contact outside parties to do further research into the complaint once it was filed without it being in danger of dismissal,
– The public and media would be unable to attend the hearings of their elected officials.
– Because the settlement did not cite with wrongdoing the campaign staff folks who were obvious participants in the violation, the paperwork on them would be sealed and unavailable for public view. Because their participation was so intertwined with the legislators, it very well might cause his to be either sealed or redacted.
– And, very importantly, this bill would remove the voice of the constituents from this equation. It is my experience that constituents are perhaps the only motivators for some politicians to behave.
I have experience with other regulatory statutes in the state, including the Executive Branch Ethics Act that became famous back in 2008/2009 under Governor Palin. In August 2009, there was much bluster about instituting punishment for those who filed complaints under that Act and then took that information public.
The Attorney General at that time, Dan Sullivan, issued an opinion on that proposed change to the Act and a number of others, as reported by the Daily News:
‘The new opinion says there’s no legal basis to penalize citizens just for talking about an ethics complaint.
‘Because public dialogue about government actions is speech at the core of the First Amendment, we do not recommend imposing sanctions on a citizen for disclosing information about an ethics complaint he or she has filed,’ the opinion says.
“It’s amazing that, soon, many of our legislators and legislative candidates will be gratefully accepting that Citizen’s-United-Supreme-Court-designated-extension of ‘free speech,’ commonly known as ‘money,’ as it begins pouring into our state, and into their coffers. Yet, at the same time, members of that same legislature (through this bill) are attempting to restrict the oldest and most common form of free speech, commonly known as ‘speech.’”
In the words of Alannis Morrisette, “Isn’t it ironic?”