Tonight, a citizens’ task force will hold a second public hearing on public hearings. As weird as that sounds, the effort is sorely needed.
Over the past five years, Anchorage has seen an uptick in controversial legislation, accompanied by a noticeable decrease in public involvement and changing rules regarding how residents of the municipality can appeal to their elected officials. After the sharp public outcry that followed the Assembly’s decision to shut down public testimony on March’s Ordinance 37 (and after a failed quick-fix), a citizens’ task force was put together to figure out some solutions. The group met twice over the summer and held their first hearing, soliciting suggestions from the public, one month ago.
The goal is to create a universal procedure for collecting public testimony. As Chair of the task force, Jane Angvik articulated in a press release to announce tonight’s hearing: “The Task Force seeks to strengthen the public hearing process in order to be as open, predictable, inclusive and transparent as possible.”
The Assembly could richly benefit from a standard procedure – especially one that includes new ways to reach out and engage people. As it stands now, meetings are far from a welcoming atmosphere. The parliamentary procedures often feel like something used to confuse attendees, and the rules tend to change like stairwells at Hogwarts. That could use some fixing. The task force has been working on recommendations to offer the Assembly, and they’ve come up with a variety. Here are a few:
- Everyone gets to testify.
- If the Assembly runs out of time with people still waiting to speak, that warrants a continuation of the meeting.
- The municipal website (which is about as navigable as the Best Buy parking lot on the day Dividend checks are sent out) should be revised to clarify an ordinance’s title, number, and dates for hearings.
- The Assembly should provide “municipal kiosks” in the lobby of the chambers to provide people with up to date information on meetings and agenda items.
- No more surprise, invisible legislation. “Laid on the table items,” which are last-minute items added to the agenda, must be printed and available for public consumption at the meeting.
- The Assembly should join the digital revolution. Start reaching out via facebook and twitter.
- They should stop hiding the agenda.
- Print the rules for public testimony on the now-not-hidden agenda.
- Enact a rigid 3 minute time limit for individuals.
- Use paper and/or electronic sign up sheets.
- Plan ahead: if a bill is expected to be controversial, rent out the Wilda Marston theater to accommodate any overflow.
- Install a “Reader Board” in the Assembly meeting room. Like an electronic board at an airport, it would display what agenda item was being discussed and show any amendments or changes in real-time. This would eliminate a lot of confusion created by substitute (“S”) versions of bills.
- Use Community Councils to serve the purpose they were created for. Start the discussion at the neighborhood level. Let them vet ordinances for potential problems before they reach the Assembly level. Allow designated representatives 5 minutes to speak on behalf of their Community Council.
Tonight, at 6 p.m. at the Loussac Library, the task force will hold its second and final public hearing to get your input. Did they miss anything? Have they gotten anything wrong? They’re depending on the public to catch any errors before they make their final report of recommendations to the Assembly.
That presentation will take place at the regular meeting, next Tuesday, October 8. Sharing the agenda that night is the opening of public testimony for the next controversial topic facing the municipality: an attempt to postpone the repeal vote on the labor law rewrite that started this entire conversation.
If you do have comments, but can’t make it to the meeting tomorrow night, make sure you jot them down and send them to the Municipal Clerk’s office by emailing email@example.com.