[Full disclosure: I worked as Patrick Flynn’s staffer on the Assembly from 2010-2013. My opinions are irreparably my own.]
Monday’s forum, hosted by the Anchorage Faith and Action Congregation Together (AFACT), is an event I always look forward to; boiling over with insightful, often challenging, questions about municipal policy.
But this year’s forum, despite a record attendance of all 13 candidates and a crowd upwards of 200, was a bit soul crushing. Not because of AFACT — who, once again, did a tremendous job coordinating the event — but because of a field of incumbents and candidates who looked neither prepared nor motivated, with ideas missing altogether.
The number of candidates present detracted from the event. Each of the several races has more than enough issues to fill an hour of discussion. But the inclusion of everyone at once narrowed the event to just three substantive questions, followed by short answers with no opportunity for back and forth.
The first question dealt with public participation; an issue that hit a sort of breaking point during the discussion surrounding last year’s Ordinance 37 — the mayor’s labor law rewrite. A major source of contention regarding the law was the lack of vetting it received prior to introduction. This perception of legislating behind closed doors was compounded when public testimony was cut off, despite hundreds still waiting to offer comment. If there was one bright spot to be gleaned from the months long (and counting) debacle, it was the commission of a citizens task force to deal with improving public participation.
On Monday, candidates were asked if they would “reexamine the unfinished recommendations from the task force with the purpose of enhancing public participation and trust?”
Ma’o Tosi, running against incumbent Adam Trombley and former legislator Pete Petersen in East Anchorage, told attendees that it was why he decided to run. “I felt like I wasn’t being heard and I felt like we weren’t being heard,” he said. “The disconnect with the community and our representatives out there are truly the reasons that I’m involved. Not over the past five months, but over the past nine years.”
Adam Trombley was more cautious. “We want to make sure that the process is balanced; that people had the ability to testify. But, at the same time, we have to make sure that the public process doesn’t stop business from getting done.”
Pete Petersen drew from his experience in the state legislature. “I think sometimes, after people have been in office for a while, occasionally they think they already know what the people think,” he explained, adding: “I think there should be a rule that you can’t play on your smart phones while people are testifying.”
Peter Nolan, running for the open seat in South Anchorage against Bill Evans and Bruce Dougherty, encouraged elected officials to take part in community councils. “When you want to talk about listening to the people, that’s a very important place for people to come.”
There was a general consensus by all candidates that mistakes had been made during the AO-37 hearings, and working to reform the public participation process, in line with the task force’s findings, was a goal they all would work toward achieving.
The second question dealt with the municipal position of homeless coordinator. The job was created in 2009, and aimed to work directly with the administration to coordinate efforts to alleviate the city’s growing homeless population. However, the position became vacant in 2012 and was cut out of the budget entirely. The candidates were asked if they would consider reestablishing the position.
Incumbents Elvi Gray-Jackson (midtown) and Tim Steele (West Anchorage) strongly advocated bringing back the full time position.
Bill Starr (the incumbent running for reelection in Eagle River against challenger Sharon Gibbons), Phil Isley (the perennial candidate currently focused on unseating Tim Steele in West Anchorage), and Bill Evans (vying for the open seat in South Anchorage) opposed the idea. Starr expressed his belief that the mayor had done a “nice job” handling the issue in-house.
Isley offered that government wasn’t the solution: “They tend to make a career out of it and it turns into an industry, as opposed to actually helping, because if you solve the problem, you lose your job,” he explained. “At the turn of the century… the churches helped the homeless. And they did it quite effectively.”
Nolan echoed the reliance on faith-based and social organizations, which was likewise greeted with the stern faces of audience members.
There has been a growing, desperate plea from faith-based institutions (the closer to downtown, the louder) who can’t meet the demand from homeless residents in the municipality desperately in need of services like warm meals, sleep centers, and not freezing to death. These nonprofits keep begging for help, and the Assembly repeats the refrain that the government should get out of the way and let churches pick up the slack.
But AFACT is a coalition of members of many of those overburdened institutions.
Patrick Flynn, who is the sole representative of downtown Anchorage, described the disconnect more bluntly: “The assembly appropriates; the executive branch executes. We could appropriate the money for our homelessness coordinator. But if our executive branch doesn’t wish to do it, which they do not, we can’t do anything about it.”
Flynn’s opponent, Mark Martinson, floated the idea of encouraging more non-alcohol venues and urban gardens, evoking many puzzled looks.
The third question didn’t stray far from the second, and once more sought to highlight how the reliance on charities to serve as the lone social safety net for chronic inebriates and mentally ill, often homeless, was overtaxing the nonprofit sector:
Current treatment services in Anchorage only meet about 30 percent of the need, yet the state house proposed to cut funding for substance abuse treatment services. If elected to office, would you advocate to make funding for substance abuse treatment a top priority in the city’s budget request to the state legislature in the fall?
Returning to the “let the churches handle it” mantra, it was clear, wouldn’t suffice. So, if you can’t blame the churches, blame the state.
“As an assembly person, that would be one of my priorities,” Bill Evans said, after touting himself as the “cut-spending” candidate. “To ask the state to fund more of those programs, to get more treatment for people so that we can do something more about this issue, rather than just give it lip service.”
Trombley followed. “Every year, we put together our legislative request packet. And, aside from asking money for roads and bridges, we also ask or request for legislation,” he explained. “When Senator Murkowski was State Senator Murkowski, she pushed through an alcohol tax increase that the industry supported, with the idea that those dollars would then go towards substance abuse programs. Now, that’s never happened.”
“It’s helpful to have those connections with the Stoltzes and the Faircloughs and the Saddlers,” Starr continued, adopting the narrative. “So when you need to sit down and say, hey these are our priorities as a community, they become vested in the conversation knowing full well that the solution exists.”
(I wonder if he can hear that cut, cut, cutting sound coming from Juneau.)
Patrick Flynn completed the thought.
“50 cents of every alcohol tax dollar goes to treatment. The other 50 cents disappears. Why is that….? Until we stand up and say those dollars go to treatment, they won’t. And we’ll have the same problem and we’ll have the same question next year.”
Monday’s event didn’t feel like the candidate forums I’ve grown accustomed to. Instead of a dynamic push and pull, tour de force of ideas, it was a begrudging admittance of helplessness and futility. A difference between candidates promising to beg the state legislature to continue funding services at a steady rate of decline and their opponents, who advocated cutting everything altogether.
No one looked like they really wanted to be there. The body language was depressing; a row of slumped over shoulders. How could so many candidates stand in front of that many people with so little enthusiasm? Painfully absent, aside from Martinson’s misplaced urban gardens proposal, were any ideas. It felt as though an entire debate, in the last week before votes are cast, was drained of all life, personality, conviction, and excitement. It was like a live-action performance of the vague bullet points, which adorn the endless flow of campaign literature rubber-banded to our doorknobs in the lead up to election day.
Back in November, I wrote about how former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom’s “State of Our City” speech really struck me. Speaking of the Sullivan administration, Mystrom told the crowd huddled in the Wendler Middle School auditorium:
The thing that I miss right now in the city of Anchorage is, I don’t get a sense of momentum. I don’t get a sense of direction. I don’t get a sense of vision for the city, and where things are happening, and I haven’t for quite a while.
I found myself nodding emphatically in agreement. Now I wonder if the problem is larger than city hall. On what felt like a long, reflective trek from First Covenant Church back to my truck, parked a few blocks away, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. I felt distinctly as if the contagion Mystrom described was spreading. I haven’t been able to shake it.
And, I’ve got to be honest: that’s a shitty feeling to walk away with, a week before election day.
Watch the full forum below: