With Chair Ernie Hall at the helm, the Assembly has taken up a considerable amount of controversial legislation recently. One universal theme that bridges the myriad issues that have come before the body: a disconnect between the mayor and the assembly, and those they serve at the pleasure of. From the behind-closed-doors rewrite of Title 21 – the city’s land use code – to the radical restrictions put upon labor via Ordinance 37, there has been a feeling that the process has been closed to the public.
When testimony was shut down on Ordinance 37, somewhere a camel felt inordinate pressure on its back from a small straw that originated in West Anchorage.
The Anchorage Assembly – which in terms of political clout registers right around the level of municipal dog catcher – didn’t escape the public outcry of residents who felt left out of the conversation.
In April’s municipal elections, the mayor’s appointee to fill Harriet Drummond’s seat, Cheryl Frasca, lost by 20 points. Andy Clary, another candidate with a Sullivan endorsement, got trounced by Dick Traini. In 2010, Traini fended off Clary by just three points. This year, the spread was 16.
And Hall (one of the few household names in municipal politics) was almost ousted by Nick Moe, a last-minute write-in challenger with little name recognition.
The people felt ignored, shut out, and increasingly benign to the processes that decide what life looks like in Anchorage. And that’s not good government.
The Anchorage Charter begins with a clear statement:
We, the people of Anchorage, in order… to achieve common goals, to support individual rights, to form a more responsive government, and to secure maximum local control of local affairs, hereby establish this Charter.
Those elected to elected office in Anchorage need to serve the people who live here; make sure their voices are protected, heard, and respected as a vital resource for local knowledge. This past April, many expressed dismay over the erosion of that first sentence in our municipal constitution for sake of political expediency. So, they raised their voices.
And Hall seemed to get it. He announced immediately that he would be introducing legislation clarifying the rules for accepting public testimony. On April 23, Hall released his public testimony ordinance, to be introduced in Tuesday night’s meeting.
I’m not sure what message Hall pulled from the election, but it does not seem to be the right one.
Anchorage Ordinance 63 takes the growing frustration of people who feel that the mayor and assembly are ignoring public involvement, and combats that with multiple restrictions that limit testimony further. Rather than codify public comment as an important facet of local governance, Hall’s ordinance greatly reduces the ability of Anchorage residents to testify while increasing the power of the Chair to control it.
Next thing you know, we won’t be able to sit down or lean during a public meeting without a special permit.
There is no current structure dictating how public comment is taken. The Assembly can exercise flexibility according to the specific circumstances surrounding any given proposal. A strength of this bill is that it tries to find uniformity. But it goes too far.
Under AO-63, a proposed bill could be opened up for a single hearing seven days after posting it online. The opportunity to sign up to speak is relegated to a single day. If you wish to speak on a public matter but are stuck at work, have a medical emergency, or a familial commitment on the day the sign up sheet is doled out, you’re shut out. A lot of people can’t get a day off from work with only a week’s notice. Many more won’t have heard about the bill until far after – how many media outlets cover assembly agendas complete with advance notice?
Stuff happens. Any sign up sheet should have a window of opportunity for people to register to speak, and it should be a window that cares more about the community dialog than the gavel signifying the end of it.
Additionally, the bill strengthens the Chair’s control over shutting down testimony, but does nothing to ensure that the testimony offered is relevant. In 2009, the municipality played host to what is often referred to as the “Summer of Hate,” as the body deliberated an ordinance seeking to extend anti-discrimination protections to LGBT residents. Dozens of hours of testimony over several meetings spanned from June 9 through to August 11. During that time, then-Chair Debbie Ossiander chose the exhaustive approach of hearing anyone who wished to speak – including people bused in from outside the municipality, and even state. That was in sharp contrast to Hall’s response to AO-37 testimony.
This law should address the ambiguity of who can testify – whether testimony should be limited to Anchorage residents, residents and people with business interests in municipality, or anyone under the sun. Any law aimed at providing a rational, function framework for public comment should reach that low bar. Otherwise we aren’t looking ahead to the next time we’re held hostage by Jerry Prevo, Jim Minnery, or another special interest shill’s email list. AO-63 doesn’t touch residency qualifications.
This ordinance isn’t about making sure that “maximum local control of local affairs” is reserved for We the People of Anchorage. It’s about getting to shut down public comment if it starts to become bothersome. And it’s about reminding people who’s in charge.
Chair Hall – the guy who an angry voting public almost showed the door because of his inattention to public input – has written into AO-63 a clause that changes protocol for offering comment before the Assembly. If this ordinance were to become law, anyone wishing to speak would be required to “respectfully recognize and address the chair by title, and… refrain from speaking until recognized.”
Government in general has an access problem. Even in a state as small as Alaska, the notion that three people can represent us nationally is hilarious. But it gets harder to excuse the further down the ladder you go. Juneau is taking note of the national model and the influx of special interest money, and our citizen input is rapidly losing its value. That pesky lack of a road system makes that a lot easier.
But our assembly? We can walk the pitchforks and torches to their doorsteps. We have their cell phone numbers. They’re right-freaking-there at the Loussac every second Tuesday.
The outcry objecting to the decreasing weight given to public comment/input/involvement is legitimate. If anything, it’s been downplayed. The reliance on republican government – the Jeffersonian concept of ward-level politics being the impetus for legislation – is waning. The recent shift, from relying on public input to viewing it as an impediment, is as shortsighted as it is perilous. Representative government that doesn’t represent those governed is quickly ignored. That translates to short term political victories awarded to the insiders, but long term damage to the rest of us. And the rest of us is Anchorage.
AO-63 will be read before the Assembly Tuesday night. Speak up.
[John Aronno serves as staff to Patrick Flynn on the Assembly. His views are irreparably his own.]