By Gretchen Wehmhoff
For decades, correspondence submitted to the Skagway mayor and assembly has been included in the online meeting packets posted on the municipal website. In October 2022 that process stopped.
In an Oct. 19 memo addressed to the mayor and the assembly, the borough clerk stated that citizen correspondence would no longer be placed on the borough website. This policy change had not been discussed in any public meeting.
The memo stated that correspondence was “typically addressed to the Mayor and Assembly and it is not necessarily intended to be provided to the internet populace.”
Other concerns noted were that recent correspondence was not deemed fit for inclusion and required attorney review, citizens who did not intend to have their letter made public had asked their letters be pulled and the concern that posting some correspondence and not others could create First Amendment issues.
Kelly Healy saw the memo from Borough Clerk Steve Burnham on his way to the Oct. 20 assembly meeting. “I would urge you to reconsider that,” Healy said. “And I know that there’s obviously some legal considerations there, but maybe instead of removing it entirely, I think, putting a little more guidelines or disclosures on that, I think would be my suggestion.”
Healy noted that when researching a meeting on the Haines website, he saw that citizen correspondence was included. He said that as a resident who travels during the winter months, having access to the packet with correspondence helped him understand what the assembly is dealing with.
“I think it’s irksome that they are not included in the packet and it feels the opposite of transparent. I don’t understand how this came to pass,” said Elizabeth Lavoie at a Nov. 11 assembly meeting.
The absence of correspondence continued into 2023.
“I am really concerned that we still do not have access to correspondence,” Jaime Bricker said two months later at a Jan. 19 assembly meeting.
“I’ve already heard a couple of people in the audience suggest that the assembly has seen a letter or an email, or this or that,” Bricker said. “I don’t even know what’s in front of you. The borough clerk said tonight that correspondence is in your packet. The general public doesn’t even have a bulleted list of what that correspondence is. I don’t know if you’ve reviewed 10 letters from the public or if you’ve got none.”
“I’ve been up here since 97’ and we’ve always published the letters,” said Assemblymember Dan Henry at the Feb. 2 meeting.
Henry suggested there must have been something that initiated the decision to stop publishing correspondence.
“Without getting into any details, there was a letter that raised those issues” responded Borough Attorney Bob Blasco. “And I pointed that out, that it could have been that nothing like that had ever come up before. …I have not seen letters that raised concern to me before. There’s a difference between things that maybe, let’s say [are] inaccurate, people don’t agree with as opposed to something that’s directly violative of somebody’s personal rights. And that’s [why] I raised that question,” Blasco said.
Charity Pomeroy wanted to make sure a letter that had been submitted to the assembly was shared with the public. She read it into the record during the Feb. 2 assembly meeting.
Prepared by Sara Kinjo-Hischer and signed by members of the community, Pomeroy read: “Dear mayor and assembly, today our small town faces many challenges. No matter what the issue, shared information and opinions are essential to building consensus and moving forward as a community. Including public correspondence in the assembly packet has been a privilege we have enjoyed for many years. In the past, Skagway city clerks have successfully navigated the challenges of what is appropriate to be included in the packet. In October, without the opportunity for a public hearing or even debate at the table among assembly members, this privilege was unilaterally taken away. As a result, it has become apparent that Skagway needs to have a comprehensive municipal policy that encourages robust public participation. Risk management is not the highest function of local government. We are encouraged to see that a civic affairs meeting has been scheduled for this issue, and look forward to a productive work session.”
After three months, the issue of public correspondence made it to a Feb. 8 Civic Affairs meeting agenda.
Mayor Andrew Cremata addressed the committee, expressing concern that the letter from community members, read at the January meeting, was not fair to the clerk’s office and that since the pandemic, there has been a lot more public participation to process.
“I know that because I would look at the Skagway News feed and see that there were 250 people watching the meeting. We also started to receive a lot of problematic correspondence. Some of that correspondence had HIPAA violations, perhaps some of the correspondence had gossip. I received death threats. I know that at least one other assembly person received death threats. So there was correspondence that became problematic, and Steve, in his diligence and doing his job, did everything that he was supposed to do. He talked to the attorney, he withheld correspondence that was problematic and then tried to find a holistic solution to that problem,” Cremata said.
Cremata expressed that he didn’t believe that the general public understands how much the assembly, clerk’s office and administration have done to resolve the issue and that the letter was correct in labeling access to citizen letters as a privilege.
He closed by addressing risk.
“The attorney has outlined liability issues. Risk management is not the highest function of local government. That’s true. But it’s an unfortunate side effect of running a government. We do a lot of things for risk management. So I do think we can find a compromise here. And I’m encouraged by what I saw Assemblymember Potter prepare,” Cremata said.
Assemblymember Deb Potter introduced a draft proposal to amend the Assembly Rules of Procedure to provide for written public comments. The proposal suggested a specific process to submit letters via the municipal website, along with check boxes verifying that the submitting party understands specific decorum requirements and that they choose to have the correspondence published on the website.
Potter said she met with Burnham and researched the history of publishing letters.
“What I’ve also learned, thinking about this and researching it, is that the municipality has never had a policy for publishing written correspondence,” Potter said. “Obviously, it hasn’t always been digital. So at one point, it went from being very analog to now we have a website, and from the best I can tell, it just kind of became automatic that correspondence to the mayor or assembly just started to get posted on the website. And the municipality never had an issue with it until last year, when three or four different incidents just happened to happen within a few months of each other.”
All correspondence submitted to the mayor and assembly immediately becomes part of public record. The clerk’s Oct. 19 memo clarified that the letters are public record under the Alaska Public Records Act and that they may not be available without a formal request.
Assemblymember and committee chair Reba Hylton agreed with Potter’s draft.
“I think it’s important that the community is privy to correspondence from fellow citizens other than social media,” she said.
“Doing research for the resolution I wrote, I relied on correspondence,” Hylton said. “I relied on going back and seeing what people submitted when Garden City came up, you know, in 2013. I wanted to know, and that doesn’t mean that just assembly members should be privy to that information. I think there are valid reasons for all of our community to be privy to it if all those boxes are checked.”
“There’s a lot of comments that I don’t think of, there’s other people in the community that have in the past made comments that I’m like, wow, that’s a good point,” said Sarah Kinjo-Hischer.
“This is a subject that is clearly important to a lot of people,” said Jennifer Thuss. “I think that this is an important venue, specifically, because it’s not Facebook and it’s not gossip at the store.”
“I just want to go to one thing that really bugs me, and it’s when I hear people talk about risk,” said Jan Wrentmore. “ And when I hear attorneys talk about risk, they don’t talk about the benefit, because every single thing that happens in this municipality has to be weighed, risk versus benefit.”
“I think what the attorney said was if you put a waiver on it, or a disclaimer. It won’t protect you from 100% of the risk. He couldn’t guarantee no one would ever sue us. But I mean, we’re a community that’s remediating a rock slide over a cruise ship dock. So ask the attorney that question. I mean, it’s not fair to put this issue to a certain standard of protection that exceeds other issues,” Wrentmore said.
The committee approved a motion to have Potter edit the draft based on the information gathered at the meeting and present it either to the Feb. 16 assembly meeting or the next Civic Affairs meeting.
Editor’s note: The Skagway News submitted various public records requests over the past year. Some were answered within a week, some longer, depending on the request. It is unlikely that a request made directly after an assembly meeting could be met in time to accommodate our edition deadline. The Skagway News encourages residents to copy Skagway News (email@example.com) when submitting letters to the mayor or assembly and we will attempt to publish what we can.