According to the Municipality of Anchorage’s municipal code, community councils are:
[P]rivate, nonprofit, voluntary, self-governing associations composed of residents, property owners, business owners, and representatives from other entities located within geographical areas designated by the Assembly. Community councils serve an advisory function to the Assembly in the local government process. The purpose of the establishment of community councils is to provide a direct and continuing means of citizen participation in government and local affairs. (AMC 2.40)
Community councils are where the rubber of Alaskan democracy is supposed to meet the road. Theory meets actual practice. It is our unique, home grown compact between concerned citizens and elected officials.
Some days that happens. Wednesday, September 14, 2016 was one of those days.
The Valley of the Moon Park neighborhood is bounded by C Street (East), Minnesota (West), 15th Avenue (North), and Fireweed Lane (South). Its most attractive feature is the public park of the same name along Chester Creek.
On Sunday, August 28, the community woke up to the park shut down by police after a 2 a.m. call. Two bodies were found along the trail. A picnic table was bloody. More questions existed than satisfactory answers.
This produced the condition of fear.
On Friday, September 2, Eva Gardner, a lawyer who lives in the neighborhood, sent an open letter to the office of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. She wrote, “The greenbelt has become a lawless corridor where crime is a known and frequent problem.”
90 residents signed the letter, using the NextDoor.com platform to circulate it.
The Mayor found himself under a pavilion at the park on Thursday, September 7, reassuring a tense crowd that public safety remained the Berkowitz Administration’s top priority. For 90 minutes residents vented. Twice the rumor of a serial killer loose on the trails was voiced. Twice Police Chief Christopher Tolley denied the rumors. The Mayor promised action.
Six days later, on Tuesday, September 13th, violence once again visited the area, resulting in the death of another male at the corner of 15th and E St., on a corner facing Central Middle School. The alleged shooter was quickly captured, thanks to his usage of social media. The police immediately released his name, Tommy Rumph, in a gesture to maintain calm.
It did not work, as the community council meeting the next day would record.
Samuel Moore, current president of the North Star Community Council (NSCC), found himself doing something mundane for half an hour before the start of the meeting scheduled for Wednesday, September 14, 2016.
Inside the North Star Elementary School’s irregularly shaped lunch room, he was setting up. Arranging 40 chairs and directing the placement of four lunch tables. A mobile speaker system of the Costco variety sat atop a neon bright yellow table. Normally, only 20 or so people decide to physically present themselves for discussion about neighborhood issues. Most of said discussion happens on NextDoor.
Not today. Today, Moore did not know what to expect.
At 6:50 p.m., members of the media jockeyed for positions on either side of the beat-up podium. A line formed behind a sign-in table. A copied newspaper article written by Jill Burke entitled, “When police are too busy, community patrols help out,” was offered to residents. Later, it was revealed that the article was to help citizens form an opinion about what community patrol can and cannot do.
At 7:04 p.m., when Moore gavelled the meeting to order, it was standing room only. He began with a joke. NSCC meets monthly from September to May. In September it is traditional to pass the microphone around and give council members the opportunity to share how they spent their summer. Because of the size of the crowd, this tradition was dismissed for time management purposes and due to the urgency of the moment.
Moore did not wish to have a repeat of the Town Hall. The experience was all emotion and produced few results. Moore wanted to produce results. The new business of the evening concerned whether or not to form a community watch patrol.
The majority of the hands went into the air when asked how many were first time visitors to the Community Council. Under the rules, only members can vote. A member is defined as a resident who attends two meetings in a row.
Updates from elected officials were the first order of business. Apparently, Community Councils have pull. The structures are the smallest political units, the wombs of American democracy. Elected officials routinely stand for questioning at these meetings and must give answers that meet the satisfaction of concerned citizens. (Or, at least, give it a shot.)
Unable to attend in person, Senator Berta Gardner’s (D-Anchorage) office sent a representative. Representative Harriet Drummond (D-Anchorage) was present. She echoed Moore’s amazement at the turn out, especially since NSCC is one of the smaller community councils that she routinely visits. Vacancies on the board exist. Drummond encouraged those in attendance for the first time to become more engaged.
In less than six minutes, Drummond listed off details about the liquified natural gas line, which is slowly advancing. A client is needed, one that is willing to make a decades-long commitment. A ballot measure to increase registered voters is on the upcoming November election ballot. So is a decision for the State to carry student loan debt.
Most locally relevant is the move of the Legislative Information Office (LIO) into the Wells Fargo building on Northern Lights. Drummond disagreed with this move, because of payments already made on the LIO downtown. Regardless, a $250,000 budget cut is limiting office hours there on Friday to noon.
At 7:18 p.m., Anchorage Assembly Vice Chair Dick Traini spoke. He reiterated the need for greater engagement at the level of community councils, stating that he visits 10 councils and the only time he sees a turn out like the one before him is when crime has spiked.
Traini focused on the upcoming budget talks. Financial support from the State (revenue sharing) is dwindling. Two years ago, Anchorage received $30 million. Last year, $12 million was received. This year, only $4 million is expected. Whether it is liked or not, cuts are going to happen. Citizens are given 3 minutes to voice their opinion and argue for their pet projects at Assembly meetings. Traini encouraged people to practice democracy.
As he sat down, he received the first hand clap of the evening. Moore joked about how brief Traini’s remarks were.
At 7:25 p.m., to highlight to the elected how effective the NextDoor platform is, Moore asked for a show of hands. How many learned about the community council meeting through the platform? The majority of hands went up, almost matching the number of people who said this was their first time attending a meeting.
Mark Butler, an active member of NSCC, gave his report about the Spenard Farmer’s Market and Road projects.
Then, Moore introduced Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
The Mayor wasted little time. He reported that a suggestion given to him last week at the Town Hall was already in place. The request was for greater lighting along the Valley of the Moon portion of the Chester Creek trail. Done.
In reference to the police staffing, Berkowitz rattled off the same statistics used at the Town Hall. 386 sworn officers exist. 50 of them remain in training and are not fully on patrol. It takes 18 months to fully train a police officer. The city ran three academies in 2016 and has plans to run another soon.
The problem is, officers who graduated in 1996 are starting to retire.
“Everyone wants simple answers,” Berkowitz said. “Be wary of simple answers.”
He said the City is attempting to remain out front on the issues creating crime in the immediate area. Every Tuesday he meets with the Homeless Coalition, which has identified 400 persons by name, who appear to be the hardcore members of the homeless community. 900 camps were identified, with tons of garbage and shelters removed from parks. 100 persons were housed, and this has resulted in an immediate drop of 25 percent in homeless-related criminal activity.
More funding needs to go towards drug and alcohol treatment. Halfway houses are dealing with runaways, which is unacceptable. His statements earned him applause.
Unfortunately, the city cannot do this work alone.
The mayor fielded several questions about the Trail Watch program and being able to sign up for it using the Muni website, data being kept on homeless camps, the response time of the Community Service Patrol service, and the ACLU forcing the city’s hand to honor a camp site for 14 days before dismantling it.
After a question of what Alaska Native Corporations were doing to fund housing for the homeless, Berkowitz stated that it is a logical fallacy to equate homeless camps to increased crime.
A resident reminded the gathered crowd that it was not homeless people being murdered.
At 8:15 p.m., due to excessive questions about police response, Mayor Berkowitz released the microphone to Lieutenant Rawlings.
A question was asked about the police department using Next Door to facilitate a faster response, in real time, to what a resident is seeing. Rawlings explained that the Next Door platform is not accessible to a formal agency like the police.
To the question of why private security guards cannot be hired to patrol the bike trail, Rawlings answered, “That is what a community patrol does.”
Listening to residents begin making statements about how the Muni website for filing a police report doesn’t really work, Moore waved his hands and ended this portion of the meeting at 8:37 p.m.
Five minutes later, after Mark Butler rattled off which community councils are actively operating community patrols and where resources for flashlights and vests are, a motion was made to establish a community patrol for NSCC. It passed unanimously.
Moore gavelled the meeting to an end and smiled big. This is what democracy looks like.