The Anchorage Assembly doesn’t get a whole lot of love in the press. With all the issues demanding coverage on a daily basis in Alaska, it just seems like there are bigger stories to cover and better stuff to photograph. The lackluster business of appropriations, purchases, and “in honor of this or that” decrees are often dismissed; unwatched archives of small government assumed to be working as intended.
And then, once a year, something out of the ordinary comes up. Someone raises an issue of personal concern and demands action, whereupon the city temporarily loses any semblance of sanity.
In dealing with these fairly atypical hot button issues, one glaring characteristic of the assembly consistently stood out among the rest: the absolute bungling of the “public” part of the process.
In 2009, acting-Mayor Matt Claman broached the topic of adding protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Alaskans to the city’s anti-discrimination laws. Anchorage Ordinance 64 should have been an hour-long meeting ending in the recognition of basic human rights. But because of how then-Chair Debbie Ossiander conducted public testimony, it turned into a season-long battle, often called “The Summer of Hate,” with multiple special meetings and hundreds of people lined up to speak.
Churches who objected to homosexuality on nonexistent theological principles organized opposition; busing people in from the Mat-Su, Fairbanks, and even the Lower 48. Anchorage residents who supported the measure felt this influx of nonresidents diluted what should have been a very local conversation and skewed public perception of how people in our community felt about the issue.
In February 2012, Mayor Dan Sullivan and assembly chair Ernie Hall inspired controversy by going after labor laws in the municipality. Ordinance 37 severely restricted collective bargaining rights and opened up many contract jobs to “managed competition,” or, as it’s more commonly known, cheap labor.
Turning AO64’s precedent on its head, Hall shut down testimony with hundreds of Anchorage workers still waiting to speak and passed the bill. People were outraged. Assembly members blinked through hours of speeches, hinting that they had already made up their minds, and the public’s testimony was just a formality to endure until they didn’t want to anymore.
The outcry translated into political fallout in April’s municipal elections. AO37 now faces a referendum. Hall narrowly fended off a last-minute, write-in candidate.
The two respective ordinances serve as illustrious bookends, with numerous other offenses in between. Hall recognized the growing disenfranchisement and immediately announced intentions to address how the body would conduct public testimony in the future.
His fix was to restrict it further. As I wrote at the time:
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.
The assembly nixed it, but quietly set up a citizen’s task force to figure out how to stop screwing up so horribly every single time. The board is composed of an all-star bench, including former Assembly members Jane Angvik, Arliss Sturgulewski and Jim Barnett, Anchorage Education Association President Andy Holleman, AFL-CIO Director of Operations Joelle Hall, and others.
Over the summer, while the sun was out, the group worked on Anchorage’s public process problem.
Should testimony be limited to residents? Should organizations be offered more time to speak than individuals? Who gets to shut off testimony and how? How much power should the chair have? Should sign-up sheets be used universally or as-needed? How should notice for “special” meetings be addressed? Do substitute versions of bills (alternative versions of legislation which can completely change an ordinance overnight) constitute a need to re-open public testimony?
The questions, and the conversations surrounding them, arrived back at one overarching problem: How does one make complicated bureaucratic procedure easily and readily accessible to the public?
Assemblyman Dick Traini told the task force that each time the assembly had attempted to remedy this question in the past, the effort was shot down due to a lack of funds.
“The assembly will choose the cheapest way to solve the problem, as opposed to the most user-friendly way to solve the problem,” Joelle Hall lamented in an August meeting.
Tonight, they want to build their case for a strengthened public process.
The task force is set to hold two public meetings in the Loussac Library’s Assembly Chambers, to take all the questions they’ve been struggling with and pose them to the entire Anchorage community.
They want to hear from us – a clear departure from the recent tone taken by the administration and Assembly majority. So, we should probably show up.
The first hearing is tonight (Tuesday, September 3) at 6pm. The second hearing will take place on October 1. Additional feedback can be submitted via email to the Municipal Clerk’s office.
The task force will be adding the input from the public to their own findings and will offer their recommendations to the Assembly on October 8.
Task force member Carolyn Ramsey told the committee that the stronger the public weighs in, and is included, the better off we’ll all be. “I’d like to hold the assembly to a higher bar, saying ‘Do your work before you bring it to the table, then let’s sit down and talk.”
But we have to demand a seat at the table. That starts today, if you show up.
It’s right outside your door. Now testify.