Last Tuesday night, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church played host to an Assembly candidate forum, put on by the Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together (AFACT).
Five of the eleven seats are up for grabs this April. Paul Honeman and Jennifer Johnston are running unopposed. Ernie Hall faces a write-in challenger in Nick Moe. Moe ran against Mark Begich for mayor back in 2006, landing 2.5% of the vote, and currently works as the sustainable communities coordinator at the Alaska Center for the Environment. Hall and Johnston were both absent.
In Chugiak, Debbie Ossiander is terming out. Three challengers are vying to replace her. Pete Mulcahy is retired military who now works as a business development manager in the private sector. To his political right, Amy Demboski is Chugiak Community Council President. And then there’s Bob Lupo, a perennial candidate and Grateful Dead groupie lookalike who’s far too moderate to garner any political traction in Eagle River. The headband probably doesn’t help.
In West Anchorage, Cheryl Frasca and Tim Steele are running for the seat recently vacated by Harriet Drummond. Steele is a Vietnam veteran who served on the Anchorage School Board for nine years. Frasca was working for the Sullivan Administration as the Director of Office and Budget Management before the Mayor appointed her to the assembly. Also in the race is Phil Isley.
In midtown, voters are presented with a rerun of 2010’s bout between Dick Traini and Andy Clary. Traini was first elected to the Assembly back in 1991 and has served on and off ever since. Clary serves on the Budget Advisory Commission – a board that has become the consolation prize for candidates supported by the mayor. Alongside Clary, on the commission, are former mayor-backed candidates Liz Vasquez and Bob Griffin – as well as current candidate Demboski. Adam Trombley served after losing his first attempt.
The first question of the night came from a St. Mary’s congregant wanting to know about improvements to public transportation. She referenced the AnchorRIDES program, which does not provide weekend service, cutting some seniors off from church services.
Moe led off by calling public transportation one of his top priorities. Though not mentioning any specific plan, he expressed his belief that Anchorage should be growing access to public transit, not cutting back.
Demboski lamented the gaps in service in Eagle River, putting an emphasis on the need for more taxi cabs. “Our seniors are really at a disadvantage. If you can’t get a cab and there’s no bus that runs, how are they supposed to get back and forth?” She went on to say that the “role of the community should be to take care of the sick and the elderly.”
It’s not the job of the private sector (nor does it make sense) to serve at the behest of the community. Taxi cabs aren’t going to service a market too small to provide sustainable revenue because it’s the communitarian thing to do.
Isley and Steele both thought the municipality should look at smaller sized buses and an improved road grid.
Clary, acknowledging the importance of public transit and admitting that “things can always be done better,” seemed to disagree with his colleagues that there is anything wrong with the current system. He told a story about a friend. “He’s legally blind; cannot drive; depends on the bus service to get everywhere. And he in particular is one who’s had experience in other locales like Washington DC and Chicago. And I was very pleasantly surprised to hear from him how well he praises our bus system compared to these other locales.”
Raise your hand if you have used public transportation in other metro areas. Raise your hand if you’ve relied on bus service in Anchorage. I’m guessing that Andy Clary’s hand just remained at his side twice.
Funding the “Bootstraps.”
The second question came from a Central Lutheran congregant who was concerned about the dwindling funding for non-profit programs like Camp Fire, which provide youth development opportunities in low income areas.
Phil Isley objected to the premise. He feels that churches should bear the complete burden of social services.
I would recommend that he pay a visit to the Anchorage Baptist Temple and kindly ask if Jerry Prevo would be receptive to the idea of taking the millions of dollars he wants to dump into the world’s tallest cross and, instead, dedicate those funds to finance more beds at St. Brother Francis Shelter.
Cheryl Frasca answered by impressively failing to say anything:
“It comes down to a matter of prioritization. And there’s no question that ensuring that children are safe and well fed is a community priority. So my approach, if elected, would be to bring together the stakeholders – again, the parents, the providers, and other representatives that deliver services – and come up with, if we can, some efficiencies by which the services can continue. It could be some consolidations, some other ways to deliver the service, but there’s no question that service is needed. The question is how. And that’s what I would be committed to try and work toward.”
Sidenote: “efficiencies” still doesn’t mean anything.
Andy Clary piled on: “We don’t always need to look for a government solution. There are private entities. And my hat’s office to these ladies who are working already… to provide this service to these children.”
Amy Demboski agreed that churches should burden the brunt of social service efforts, and that government isn’t the answer, noting that “you can’t tax people 100 percent.”
I would ask her to point me towards a single person proposing that as a solution.
The current demand in the municipality for services far outweighs what the churches (at least those that have chosen to make homelessness and poverty a community priority) can provide. For free. The expectation that those same private church volunteers – the same ones announcing changes to their homeless policies due to growing safety concerns – should just buck up and volunteer harder is a more than alarming cognitive dissonance.
And purporting that a 100 percent tax rate is the only other policy prescription is ridiculous.
Isley, Clary, Demboski, and Mulcahy all echoed Frasca’s belief that it should be up to the “stakeholders” to initiate the needed social service programs, not the government. They didn’t seem to notice that the “stakeholders” in question were the two women from Central Lutheran standing in front of them.
Their message was clear: We need help. Did you not just hear us just say that?
No one mentioned that downtown churches are changing their homeless policies because of rising public safety concerns. No one mentioned that the mayor recently axed the position of homelessness coordinator.
Traini looked annoyed. “We have money in this town. According to my budget analyst, we have a surplus of $34 million dollars. It’s not a matter of ‘we don’t have money,’ it’s a matter of where it’s being spent….”
Traini expressed frustration that more effort wasn’t being put in, at the assembly level, to make child development services a higher priority: “We need to reach out and help them. Especially the parents that are working three jobs and have kids. If you don’t help them, their children are lost.”
Nick Moe stated his belief that there is no better investment then in future generations, and that includes children of low income families. He spoke, specifically, about child hunger: “There are 68,000 Alaskans who are food insecure, and most of them are children, meaning they don’t know where their next meal might come from. Schools have a great opportunity to increase access to affordable, to nutritious foods that help increase that opportunity as well.”
Pastor Robert Evans of Bethel Chapel asked the third and final AFACT question of the night:
“Statistically, in a community where police officers work a traditional beat, crime rates go down; community involvement goes up. In Anchorage, we have a CAP [Citizens Assisting Police] team that moves from troubled area to troubled area… and it seems like maybe they’re putting a band aid on a problem.”
Pastor Evans asked how, or if, the candidates would change this approach.
Tim Steele said that public safety was the number one issue raised when going door to door. He said that Ordinance 37 was an example of how the Sullivan administration didn’t respect police officers.
Dick Traini agreed. “On the 26th of March, we’re going to see the police leave this town.”
That’s today, when the Assembly is expected to pass the ordinance.
He said our police force is demoralized.
Honeman backed the midtown assemblyman up, saying that he had talked to five officers who were planning on leaving due to the mayor’s labor overhaul. The ex-cop described crime as a displacement problem. If you stick your finger in a glass of water, the water doesn’t go away, it just relocates. Honeman claimed that, to enact effective policing, Anchorage needs to double the police force.
He also believes Anchorage Ordinance 37 makes things worse. “We’re going backwards, not forwards, and that’s shameful. The community loses.”
Andy Clary disagreed. “My understanding is that it’s going pretty well.”
He admitted that APD may need more staff.
Phil Isley, who lauds himself as being a non-career politician (despite running for state house in 2012, 2010, and mayor in 2009) took a more offensive tack: “If AO37 causes our police officers to leave, maybe they’re not that dedicated to the community.”
Phil Isley is a career politician. He’s just really bad at it. This is an example of why. And he should stop.
Parting thoughts, and Cheryl Frasca.
A bizarre theme developed over the quick hour of debate among many of the candidates. There was a sort of expectancy that the people who really make the differences in the lives of Anchorage residents – church volunteers, public employees, first responders – should just work for substandard wages or, better yet, free. And if crime is getting worse, or homelessness is on the rise, or if children are going hungry, that’s their fault.
Sometimes barriers happen. We shouldn’t have to clear those roads. The cars should just pile up.
Of the priorities facing the municipality, many running to serve as elected officials seemed to posit that taking ownership of the problems ailing Anchorage is not one of them.
I was left unsure of what many of the candidates thought the role of the assembly was, other than outsourcing responsibilities. “Managed competition,” I suppose.
Dick Traini probably made the best case for himself. Fresh off an embarrassing campaign for state legislature, the Mayor Sullivan’s anti-union bill has afforded the midtown candidate a new spotlight.
Andy Clary was surprisingly off his game.
Amy Demboski, likewise, did nothing to help her candidacy. But her opponents did nothing to raise their stock either.
Nick Moe is soft spoken and well versed in the issues he addressed. He also faces an unlikely surmountable uphill battle, and didn’t make clear a pathway to eclipse the Sisyphusian effort before him.
And then there’s Cheryl Frasca, who chose to end the night by joining her colleagues on the issue of Ordinance 37 – despite her stance on it.
“I’ve got to be candid, one of the frustrating things to me about the Assembly process is the role of the public. And it is real limiting to think that they’re only entitled to three minutes when an issue comes before the Assembly. And, so, my commitment is to rethink how the Assembly does this process, and what way can the citizens be engaged – especially on difficult policy issues where their comments serve as input into the decision making.”
The Assembly voted to shut down public testimony on a bill which drastically changes the landscape of what it means to be a worker in Anchorage. The Assembly is obligated by charter to allow all citizens who wish to speak on a matter time to do so.
One problem. When Paul Honeman made a motion, in the waning moments of the near five hour long March 11, third special meeting, Cheryl Frasca was the first person to vote to shut down public comment. 8 days later, we get a defense for the public’s right to comment?
In a tribute to what many hope to be irony, the bell rang, and her time was up.