One thing we’ve appreciated about the State of Alaska’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far is the availability of information.
In addition to the detailed data made available by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, there continues to be regular press conferences and the more occasional virtual town halls with participation by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink and other state officials.
These events, controlled as they are, have provided both up-to-date information from the state and a window into the state’s decision-making process in responding to the pandemic.
The general transparency gives an impression that the public has most of the same information as the policy makers. Agree or disagree with the policy decisions, there hasn’t been a sense that the administration is hiding basic data about the incidence of COVID-19 in Alaska.
But COVID-19 isn’t the only thing happening in the state. On some of these topics, the Dunleavy administration should be more transparent than it’s chosen to be to date.
A prime example is Dunleavy’s silence regarding now former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who Dunleavy quietly had placed on unpaid leave for the month of August but resigned on Aug. 24 when the Anchorage Daily News published a report about his 558 affectionate emails sent early this year to another state employee.
Beyond a brief initial statement following Clarkson’s resignation, Dunleavy has been mum about his knowledge of Clarkson’s actions and about his own response.
“That issue was dealt with according to law,” he said when asked about the circumstances during Tuesday evening’s COVID-19 press conference. “And there are statutes that allow and prohibit certain comments on that.”
He added that questions on the subject could be sent to his press office, which would vet its responses with the Alaska Department of Law.
The question during Tuesday’s COVID-19 press conference was asked by KTUU/KYES reporter Daniella Rivera — who noted Wednesday on social media that although Dunleavy said the press could email questions, “when I sent questions about transparency related to his handling of the AG’s conduct last week, those questions were not answered.”
So, she asked the governor directly during a press conference.
Her ability to ask the question is in sharp contrast to the experience of Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins on Tuesday.
Hopkins, who broke the Clarkson email story, said he wasn’t allowed to participate in the press conference.
“(Dunleavy’s) spokesman barred me from participating in this news conference because I wouldn't reveal what kind of questions I wanted to ask,” Hopkins wrote on social media.
There is a vast difference between taking a reporter’s question — even if the response is a deflection — and actively preventing a reporter from asking a question.
Any American politician of experience understands that holding a press conference opens the door to topics beyond the subject at hand. Preemptively blocking participation because an uncomfortable question might be asked is a huge step in the wrong direction for this or any other government entity truly interested in transparency.
As we noted earlier, the flow of COVID-19 information from the state has been a positive benefit to the people of Alaska.
In that spirit, we’d like to suggest a way to continue on-topic COVID-19 briefings while extending that transparency to other aspects of the government.
That’s simply to have regular, non-topic-specific press conference and town hall events. The comments get made, questions get asked, responses are given.
The regular frequency of the COVID-19 press conferences and participation by the governor and senior state staff members shows that other media and town hall events would be simple to accomplish.
It would be a great way to stand tall for transparency in other aspects of state government.