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Anchorage Assembly Plays Politics with Ballot Measure 2

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Editor’s Note: I worked as Patrick Flynn’s staffer on the Assembly from 2010-2013. My opinions are irreparably my own.

The Anchorage Assembly has every right to pass resolutions. Generally, when not of a controversial nature, the Assembly avoids discussion entirely. Most resolutions are incorporated into the consent agenda, which — unless pulled by an Assembly member for discussion — are automatically passed by the body. Procedurally, resolutions are informal. They rarely necessitate work sessions, where experts inform Assembly members on the intricacies of the issues, and are not afforded public hearings, allowing constituents to weigh in.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Midtown Assemblyman Dick Traini introduced AR-267, “A Resolution of the Anchorage Municipal Assembly Opposing Ballot Measure No. 2 to Legalize Recreational Marijuana Use in Alaska.”

It sparked controversy before introduction.

The “Yes on 2” Campaign, supporting the legalization of marijuana, alleged that Traini had “colluded” with the group opposing Ballot Measure 2. In a press release, they cited an email exchange between Traini and “No on 2” spokesperson Deborah Williams, in which Traini told Williams: “We need to contact every assembly member and urge them to vote yes, thanks[.]”

As Alaska Dispatch News noted yesterday, Traini is a volunteer for the group opposing legal weed and has donated to the campaign.

The move is far from unprecedented; the body weighs in on political matters from time to time, generally steered by whatever political winds guide the eleven-member body. The Assembly, for instance, passed a resolution opposing Coastal Zone Management in 2012 (and a year before, it passed a resolution in support).

The inherent problem with such resolutions, however, is the informal procedure that hosts deliberation.

AR-257 is typical for a political resolution in its editorial bent. As the Yes on 2 campaign noted, the text of the bill entertained by the legislature cites that marijuana is still an illegal substance under federal law, but fails to mention the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to defer its right to challenge state laws legalizing the substance. It asserts that, since legalized in Colorado, “Denver has experienced an increase in the robbery rate,” but neglected to provide data released by the Denver Police Department showing that violent crime (including homicide, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) “fell by 6.9% in the first quarter of 2014.” It declared that, since banks are required to purchase federal insurance and comply with the treasury, all marijuana transactions will be in cash (which is not the case in Denver), and then moves on to presume — in big, fat, bold letters — that marijuana businesses will be implicated in federal money laundering charges.

The resolution is wholly one-sided, and that one side runs parallel to the No on 2 campaign’s politically crafted narrative.

The six included bullet points and eight accompanying “whereas” statements making the case against legalization of marijuana could have been contested, but the lax procedural guidelines for resolutions value political expediency over making a substantive point. No work session to educate assembly members; no public hearing to hear from informed (and duly uninformed-but-opinionated) constituents.

“We’ve received no information on this,” South Anchorage Assemblyman Paul Evans noted. “We all probably have varying degrees of knowledge about the issue.” (He would vote for it anyway.)

A point the assembly made clear as the body engaged in a brief period of litigation.

Midtown Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson opined:

Initially, I wasn’t going to take any kind of position on this because it’s, frankly, up to the voters. And one of my concerns is, the way it stands right now, there are a number of folks in our community that are incarcerated for small amounts of marijuana and it’s alarming. Medical marijuana already is allowed in this community and I believe even a small amount for recreational purposes.

This is where a work session might have come in handy, to point out that medical marijuana is indeed legal. As is recreational gray-jacksonweed, under four ounces. Nowhere to be found in the discussion or resolution was the overarching caveat: it is illegal to attain either. There are no medical dispensaries. The interpretation by the court established in Ravin v. State holds that it is legal to ingest marijuana in the privacy of one’s home, so long as it appeared there magically. A large contention of legalization supporters is that marijuana users — recreational and medical — shouldn’t have to criminalize themselves to attain something that the state sanctions as legally permissible to use.

Thanks to the self-inflicted parameters the Assembly assigned itself, this didn’t come up; a point Traini made worse with his comments to the ADN:

“My theory is if we had public comment, we would have what we had with (the city labor law), AO-37, where you would have nights of people saying ‘I’m right; no, I’m right,’ ” Traini said. “It’s just easier to let the Assembly decide.”

Favoring letting the Assembly decide is a departure for Traini. The right to offer public comment on the labor law was a large part of his reelection campaign and an oft repeated refrain as to why the labor law should have been repealed, and why it should come November. He went to great lengths to protect it during deliberations over AO-37, even seeking to overrule then-Chair Ernie Hall. Call it selective hearing.

Honeman defended the resolution as part of the body’s responsibilities to constituents:

We are the elected representatives, of course… and we have to take decisions and make decisions based on what’s in the best interest of public safety from time to time. And this is a matter of public safety. And so I don’t feel the least bit of compunction that we step forward and make a statement one way or the other. It has nothing to do with telling people which way to vote.

It should be noted that offering a resolution opposing Ballot Measure 2 is precisely telling people which way to vote. Resolutions are a reflection of the body; a recommendation to constituents. The only reason campaigns solicit resolutions of support or opposition is to use them as evidence supporting whichever way a group wishes voters to vote. This is why the No on 2 group tweeted Tuesday night: “Municipality of Anchorage joins the growing list of others opposing Ballot Measure 2.”

By nature, resolutions on ballot measures fundamentally serve the purpose of influencing voters. And the Anchorage Assembly, should they choose to use their positions to play party to that influence, should at least vet whatever side of a proposal they have chosen to promote.

Should Ballot Measure 2 pass, the Anchorage Assembly will have to decide whether or not Alaska’s largest city will opt in or out. The initiative includes a provision allowing municipalities to prohibit commercial marijuana. That will warrant a public process with multiple work sessions and public hearings. The Assembly should respect the will of the voters and wait to adjudicate the matter until a date where they understand it as best as possible. Tuesday was not that time, and by no means offered a shred of that process.

“Ballot initiatives on state issues, I don’t think, are an area where we should way in,” Assembly Chair Patrick Flynn offered, during discussion on Tuesday. “If we had brought a resolution on the recent oil tax referendum I would have voted against that. If someone brings a resolution regarding the minimum wage increase, I’ll vote against that. I don’t think, frankly, the voters care about what we think.”

Flynn and East Anchorage Assemblyman Pete Petersen dissented, and the resolution passed 9-2.