Text message vote by Wrangell assembly draws concern from legal expert

Wrangell City Hall. (Photo by KSTK)

Wrangell city leaders still won’t say how a 3-2 vote to fill an Assembly seat went this month.

Open government experts say the city is openly flouting Alaska law by holding a secret vote in plain sight.

On June 9, assembly members cast votes by text message to nominate special education teacher Ryan Howe to fill out the remainder of a vacant term. It was close: He beat out nurse practitioner Laura Ballou by a single vote.

The city clerk announced the 3-2 vote in Howe’s favor but not how individual assembly members voted. Nor is it reflected in the minutes of the meeting.

That’s a problem said media attorney John McKay, Alaska’s foremost expert on open meeting and public records laws. He said he can understand why public officials might want to shield their vote from each other — but they don’t have the right.

“Private citizens get secret ballots, but public officials don’t,” says McKay. “We elect them to do our business in public and sometimes that can be awkward, but this isn’t middle school.”

Alaska’s law is clear: “the vote shall be conducted in such a manner that the public may know the vote of each person entitled to vote.” A June 18 news article in the Wrangell Sentinel also raised questions about the appointment. The city manager defended the move saying it was her idea for members to cast votes by text message.

Two weeks after the vote, the city attorney followed up with a five-page memo. It says the text message votes were a nomination and not the vote which was unanimous in Howe’s favor.

McKay says that’s not what happened at all.

“They took a secret vote to decide who would fill the vacancy. Then they took a public roll call vote that just told the public the assembly was confirming their earlier secret vote and keeping it secret,” McKay says. “They screwed up, and I think they should have just admitted that and quickly fixed it. And they still should.”

The city attorney’s memo also notes that the nominating texts – the secret 3-2 vote – were preserved in the record. KSTK requested those messages under Alaska’s public records law. Wrangell’s city clerk said that request is pending and could take up to two weeks.

None of the five assembly members contacted for comment returned calls or would agree to disclose how they’d voted.

Alaska’s open meetings law doesn’t have an enforcement provision. It only says that actions taken in violation of the law can be overturned if successfully challenged in court.

Ryan Howe’s term expires in October when Wrangell next holds municipal elections.

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