The board of directors for a southeast energy provider has begun a discussion about public access to its meetings and records. That’s after two news organizations expressed concern over the Southeast Alaska Power Agency’s initial reluctance to provide bylaws and meeting documents to the media this month. The issue came up during public comments at a special, teleconferenced meeting on a variety of other topics. Some officials, including some SEAPA board members, also raised concerns and initially questioned the justification for a proposed executive session related to future power needs. Matt Lichtenstein reports.
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Just prior to the January 17th meeting, KFSK radio contacted SEAPA to ask for more detail on the subject of the executive session, which was listed on the public agenda only as “Discussions: R-E Request for Offers of Power and Energy”. Not sure of the agency’s status under the state’s open meetings law, KFSK eventually asked for a copy of the agency bylaws. SEAPA staff turned down that request with an email that read, “SEAPA is organized as a joint action agency under Alaska Statutes. Its Bylaws provide that its meetings are open, and public notice be provided for them,” However, The SEAPA email went on to say, “ It is not a public agency, and is not subject to public disclosure laws. As such, SEAPA does not make these materials available.”

That response was unusual for an organization that had always been forthcoming with basic information like this in the past. So, KFSK raised the issue at the start of the board meeting, and the board was quick to address the issue.

Pro Tem SEAPA Chairman and City of Ketchikan Vice Mayor Bob Sivertsen noted that the agency’s newly hired CEO Trey Acteson was still getting settled. He was hired this past summer. Sivertsen said he had spoken Acteson about the issue.

Acteson assured KFSK the agency WOULD put the bylaws and other basic documents on its website prior to its next meeting, “We’ll be posting at a minimum the power sales agreement, the joint action agency agreement, the bylaws, and we’ll also be posting any future agendas as well. We’re just trying to get our business processes in order and this is just a continuing effort along those lines,” he said.

However, KFSK was not alone in it’s concern. Wrangell Sentinel reporter Greg Knight told the board that Acteson had turned him down when he requested a copy of the Board Packet prior to the meeting. He said he had also been told that SEAPA was not subject to public disclosure because SEAPA was not a public agency.

“I’m concerned that board packets and information related to decisions being made by the SEAPA board when it comes to any items that are on this agenda or any future agenda, that they be available to the public as well as to the media because listening to you guys on a telephone conference, it only tells you so much and to actually have the details of what is being purchased, what’s being done in terms of your studies and approval of contracts, it’s very helpful to me as a journalist,” Knight said.

Under Alaska Statutes, a joint-action agency like SEAPA is made up of two or more public utilities. They have the powers of a public utility. They can finance, build and operate power plants and transmission lines. SEAPA owns the two, main hydro-electric facilities and lines that power Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg.

Tyee Lake power plant, one of SEAPA’s facilities

SEAPA has a separate and independent legal existence from the public utilities it serves under state law. While SEAPA’s bylaws require adherence to the state’s open meetings act, they don’t address the disclosure of public records. However, SEAPA is governed by representatives from the municipalities of Ketchikan, Petersburg, and Wrangell. Like all municipalities, those local governments are subject to Alaska’s open public records law, and they regularly receive meeting packets and other materials from SEAPA.

KFSK ended up getting the SEAPA bylaws with help from the Petersburg Borough. Borough staff asked the agency for the document after being contacted by KFSK about the issue.

Ketchikan Public Utilities Manager Karl Amylon also had concerns on this front. He wanted more lead time for local officials and the public to review board materials….and he questioned the description of the executive session as listed on the agenda.

“I don’t want to get into a legal debate, but I’ve reviewed the agenda statement, as has the city attorney. I don’t think it necessarily conforms to the Alaska Open Meetings Law and I’m concerned that if the justification for going into executive session is the adverse impact upon the finances of the agency, the open meetings statute requires that you disclose how having that session in public could potentially adversely impact the finances of the agency,” Amylon said.

Alaska law allows an exception to open meetings rules if that bar is met. Despite his concern, Amylon did not object to the executive session itself.

Ketchikan City Councilor and SEAPA board member Sam Bergeron emphasized that as a public official, he was used to keeping the public in the loop.

“I would hope going forward that this board would be particularly sensitive to doing the public’s business publically regardless of what our legal entity is, regardless of what our legal obligations are. I like the folks we represent, all of us, to know what we’re up to at all times,” said Bergeron.

Board member Brian Ashton from Wrangell agreed and asked that this topic be put on the next agenda for a more thorough discussion.

The topic came up again later, as the board was about to take a vote on whether to go into the executive session to talk about the agency’s plan to put out a request for offers of power. In order to meet a growing demand for electricity, SEAPA has been looking into a variety of options. They could include working with other entities to build new plants of purchase power, hence the request for proposals.

But, some board members from Ketchikan and Wrangell asked for more explanation of the topic and questioned why it had to be discussed in private.

Pro Tem Chair Sivertson thought an executive session was warranted, “And I’d just like to make the statement, understanding what requests for proposals are or requests for offers are, I believe that the subject is relevant to the strategy regarding a potential project that may have an immediate effect on our finances but,” Sivertson continued “…also what matters is the need to discuss subjects, the knowledge of which could have an adverse impact on SEAPA’s ability to negotiate favorable agreements going forward.”

According to SEAPA attorney Joel Paisner, the board had previously discussed the issue in the open and, to a lesser extent, in executive session. Paisner told the board and other attendees that SEAPA would make the request for power itself public when it comes out:

“So it is a document that’s going to be issued, it will be a public document,” Paisner said, “and Everyone will get a chance to review it. There are some issues and questions staff has regarding some very specific questions about issuing the document and seeking offers of projects in the general SEAPA region.”

And Paisner said those specific issues have an effect on the finances of the agency.

The board eventually agreed, by unanimous vote, to discuss the request for energy proposals in executive session.