Leading the nation
Alaska excelled in several areas, including oversight of lobbyists, easily-accessible political finance data, and strict ethics rules governing the executive and legislative branches.
One of the notable standouts is the category for judicial accountability, for which the state earned a B-, the best score in the nation.
When the delegates gathered at that long-ago Constitutional Convention, they wanted to create an accountable judiciary that was responsive to the people while being insulated from undue influence. The result was “a merit-based system that was isolated as much as possible from politics and money,” Fischer said.
For the selection of the state’s judges, the delegates created the Alaska Judicial Council, composed of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, three members selected by the governor and approved by the Legislature and three attorneys selected by the Alaska Bar Association.
The council recommends candidates based on a review of professional qualifications, and the governor selects a judge from that pool to fill any vacant seat. Voters weigh in during retention elections after a judge serves an initial term, and they are provided with an array of information about the judge’s performance, prepared by the council.
Judges are also required to file detailed financial interest disclosures that include information about immediate family members, and are subject to strict laws that regulate when and how they can accept gifts.
Room for improvement
When it comes to access to public information, however, the state’s founding fathers didn’t have the same foresight. The issue of public records didn’t even come up during the convention, Fischer said.
The result: Alaska’s open records laws are lacking, and their implementation is even worse. Alaska was one of many states to garner an F in this category.
Some agencies will promptly fulfill certain records requests, while others drag their feet or charge exorbitant fees. With no single entity to oversee the state’s open records law, the outcome of requests is inconsistent.
“I think this is probably the single worst thing where Alaska comes out worse than other states,” said media lawyer John McKay.
Procedures vary from department to department, and some agency heads tend to closely guard controversial records. Former Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, drew ire for slow responses to requests for state-funded studies on Medicaid expansion and a proposed billion-dollar bridge project.
In 2014, after Alaska Public Media and Alaska Dispatch requested emails related to an investigation into misconduct in the Alaska National Guard, the Parnell administration demurred.
Lori Townsend, news director for Alaska Public Media, said several months of unfulfilled promises from the governor’s office led to a curt denial in September 2014, when an official at the Alaska Department of Law essentially told her organization, “'Well, actually no, we're not going to give these to you,'" Townsend said.
Parnell was vying for a second term for governor that year, and based on recent history, his administration had little worry that its denial would be challenged. The only option for an appeal once a department head has weighed in is to take the matter to court, an expensive and arduous endeavor.
But in this case, that’s exactly what happened. The two news organizations sued and succeeded in gaining access to at least some of the emails they had requested before Election Day.
That was an exception to the norm. More often, public officials have simply rejected requests outright, and have faced few challenges, said Kyle Hopkins, digital director of KTUU Channel 2 News. “They knew that newsrooms couldn't afford to see it through," he said.