The CVN last week published a story about the four candidates for Haines Borough police chief who’d applied by the borough’s deadline.
The story – which identifies applicants to date – would be impossible to write if an ordinance proposed by borough manager Mark Earnest is approved. Earnest proposes to make confidential the applications of candidates for high-level jobs including police chief, harbormaster, tourism director and others.
He’s also proposing to make confidential the evaluations of such employees, despite a 1991 Alaska Supreme Court decision that ruled evaluations of employees as far down the pecking order as municipal librarian are “matters of legitimate public concern.”
For decades, borough and city governments have shared with the media the applications of candidates for high-level municipal jobs, because it’s good public policy. Sharing applications allows citizens to learn about candidates and their experience, and to weigh in with any information or insights they may have about a hire.
That’s transparency in decision-making.
Earnest said this week he might be okay with releasing applicants’ names, but if an applicant’s name is Bob Jones, a name is little help to taxpayers curious about Jones’ background.
Earnest hasn’t explained why he wants to keep applications for high-level public jobs secret, but this week he shared with the assembly his reasoning behind locking up the evaluations of the police chief and other supervisors.
Earnest said that knowing the documents would be public would tend to “soften” evaluations, and make them less useful, for example, as justification for firings. Evaluations that were more frank, he suggested, would be used as weapons against employees.
Earnest’s take on this is from the view of a bureaucrat who would protect a bad employee at the expense of the taxpayers who pay public employee salaries.
There are good reasons for having evaluations of high-level employees open to the public, including putting the employee on notice that they’re not doing their job, and tipping off the public about shortcomings to watch out for. Also, by the time a criticism of a high-level employee is included in a performance evaluation, it’s likely something citizens already know or should know.
Let’s take a real world example. Recent police chief Gary Lowe was abusive toward his employees. Because Lowe was never evaluated until this year – and because his evaluation was not made public while he was employed by the borough – the public was left in the dark about Lowe’s behavior, and morale at the police department suffered.
In fact, the Haines Borough didn’t rid itself of Lowe until this newspaper published allegations about his behavior.
Under the policy of confidential evaluations, who was protected? Gary Lowe, an unsatisfactory employee. Who was hurt? Employees who had to work under Lowe, and potentially the public. We’re lucky none of the workers who suffered Lowe’s abuse didn’t sue the borough for keeping him on the payroll as long as it did.
High-level employees who do a good job have nothing to fear from having their evaluations available to the public, and the jobs of employees who do their work poorly shouldn’t be protected by borough law. The state Supreme Court understands this logic and sides with the public’s right to know.
Two questions persist: 1) Why is Earnest trying to overturn decades of local government policy by concealing applications for local jobs? 2) On the issue of evaluations, why does the borough want to create a test case to see if the Alaska Supreme Court means what it has said in plain language?