Confidentiality agreements have their place, but not in public discourse on the public's dime.
That's the problem with the confidentiality agreements signed by the city and other interested parties that will keep a major study of whether the Anchorage port project can be built as designed under wraps until after voters decide whether to commit $50 million in state money to continue the work.
And it's not even clear that the study itself is included in the confidentiality agreement, which includes anything marked confidential, attorney-client communications, documents related to litigation and procurement information. The confidentiality pledges were sought by the Maritime Administration, which had oversight of the troubled port expansion project until recently, and is involved in contract dispute lawsuits with contractors and subcontractors.
That's one thing. But the $2 million independent study, by engineering firm CH2M Hill and overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, aims to settle a pressing public issue -- can the port expansion as originally designed be completed? In other words, can this project costing hundreds of millions of dollars work, or do we need a different design?
If that's not a public question, we don't know what is.
City officials were briefed on the draft report Oct. 2, and had it in hand as of Tuesday. They already know at least the preliminary answer to the pressing public question, but say they can't tell us. So the next question is why have they decided that their confidentiality agreement must keep us in the dark about an issue very much in the public realm?
Do they think litigants won't have access to the report in court? Of course they will.
Public money is paying the freight on all of this -- reports, meetings, steel, bonds, bulldozers and engineers. To tell the public to wait on the key conclusion of the report makes no sense. Government draft reports on major public issues are commonly released with the understanding that they are drafts, not final documents.
Why must this one be different?
Too often, Alaska public officials forget confidentiality should be the exception, not the rule, in the conduct of the public's business. Confidential briefings -- followed by the mayor's recommendation to just trust us -- don't build trust, especially as we head into the voting booth.