Late Tuesday night the Haines Borough Assembly voted to go into a closed-door executive session which generally requires everyone – except one or two city staff – to leave the room so the assembly can talk in private.

But, the meeting wasn’t exactly secret. Instead, they invited 21 members of the Chilkat Valley Rural citizens, the borough clerk, deputy clerk and their attorney to stay in the room too. That citizen’s group is appealing a conditional use permit that was granted for a heliport. They contacted the assembly about settling the case. And they wanted to do it in private. 

This is not what closed-door meetings are for and it should have been clear that assembly members were violating the spirit, and mostly likely the letter of the law when they had to spend half an hour hemming and hawing over how many members of the public could be invited to what was supposed to be a closed-door meeting – essentially throwing spaghetti at the wall looking for any justification that stuck. 

The parameters for executive session are narrow and spelled out for a reason – the presumption should always be that a public body conducts the business of the public in front of the public. The state’s open meetings laws offer a few narrow exemptions – including discussion of financial matters which could have an adverse effect on the finances of the government. That justification is ultimately what the assembly used when it voted unanimously to go into a closed-door session – though it’s not clear how it applies in this case since the group was not asking for any financial compensation

Not only did assembly members violate the spirit of the state’s open meetings laws, they also ignored the advice of their own attorney. 

Multiple times throughout the discussion borough attorney Charles Cacciola told them “if you’re discussing with them – the party you’re going to settle with – it’s difficult to see how that [exemption] would apply.” 

And, “it’s unclear to me what the basis under the Open Meetings Act would be.” 

The citizen’s group should have presented its case in open session and the assembly could have gone into executive session to discuss its response strategy. That would have been the right way to handle it. 

Instead, Tuesday’s Assembly action erodes the public trust in our elected representatives. Open meetings aren’t a procedural formality – something to be circumvented when the assembly wants to meet in private –  they’re a vital mechanism for accountability. It creates an atmosphere of suspicion and raises questions about whose interests are truly being served. 

If the assembly feels emboldened to use legally shaky grounds to meet in private with a group of citizens over something as relatively benign as an administrative appeal of a permit , what’s going to stop them from doing it in the future when the stakes are even higher? 

Newly elected assembly members ran on a platform of increasing transparency in local government. On Tuesday, they failed to live up to that promise and set a bad precedent – one that the Assembly should apologize for and learn from before it repeats itself. 

As a community, we must demand better. We must hold our elected representatives to a standard of integrity and openness that requires them to assume meetings must be open, even if it’s uncomfortable, unless there is a clear, legal reason otherwise. Tuesday was not it.