It seems that Ernie Hall and the Anchorage Assembly could use a lesson in history and the Anchorage Municipal Charter.
The concept of "democracy" gets mangled and maligned in people's opinions. The problem is that democracy isn't something you can simply find in the dictionary and point at its definition. It's a complex and dynamic concept and could mean one thing in one society while looking completely different in another.
One fundamental principle that is consistent in nearly all functional democracies is some sort of direct input into the government.
The first successful democracy was Athenian democracy. It was a direct democracy model, which means that people would vote directly on the issues rather than elect those to vote for them. In contrast, with the Roman model, they created a republic while retaining many of the principles of democracy.
Our government is a republic with a unique blend of democratic elements mixed in. As a society we embrace some democratic elements such as the initiative process, the ability to amend both the state and federal constitutions and the right to address particular government agencies in person, particularly on a local level.
The chair of the Anchorage Assembly, Ernie Hall, however, seems to prefer that you just shut up.
Chair Hall, who once ran for Lieutenant Governor as a Democrat, managed the meetings over a controversial ordinance (AO-37) relating to union represented municipal employees. Anchorage Daily News reporter Casey Grove noted that while the Assembly heard from nearly 300 people over four different assembly meetings, Hall closed the testimony despite having a list of many names of people still wanting to testify.
Article II Section 9 of the Anchorage Municipal Charter states that residents of Anchorage have "the right to be heard at public hearings before adoption of . . . any ordinance" (except an "emergency ordinance"). When Ernie Hall cut off public testimony on that night in late March, he violated the rights of those people still waiting to testify.
The attitude displayed in that decision extends far beyond Hall's refusal to allow the men and women of Anchorage to continue to testify. Those of us who observe assembly meetings on a regular basis can see the reactions of assembly members during public testimony. They regularly are seen looking at electronic devices on their desks, talking to each other, fiddling around in their chairs or - one of the rudest gestures - walking out in the middle of someone's testimony.
Imagine that someone had an issue that mattered so much to them that they took the time to come to speak to you in person; they built up the courage to have this conversation with you in front of the entire Anchorage Assembly. All of this with an audience, on television, and a member just stands up and walks out in the middle of heartfelt testimony. This sort of arrogance is a little more than I can comprehend.
The Anchorage Assembly commissioned a "task force" on public hearings to take up this issue. It is chaired by long-time activist and former assembly member Jane Angvik. They met last week and have another meeting scheduled in October.
However, Ernie Hall seems to still prefer that you just shut up.
Hall has previously proposed Assembly Ordinance 63. (AO-63) This ordinance creates a majority assembly vote requirement for public hearings to continue more than one date.
The ordinance refers to "The right of the public to be heard." This is a strong departure from what the municipal charter demands. When a governing document, such as a constitution or the municipal charter specifically protects a right, it does so for all of the residents of that area.
Just as the federal government could not successfully argue that because the residents of one state have been provided the right to free speech, it doesn't matter that you have not, since "the right of free speech" has been met, Hall cannot say that because your neighbor had the right to speak in front of the assembly that "the right of the public" to be heard has been met. You still have a right to be heard according to the Anchorage charter.
According to the Anchorage Municipal Charter, you have a right to be heard in front of the assembly before they pass "any ordinance."
They don't have the right to tell you to just shut up.
Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former student body president at UAA and has studied, worked and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late 90s. E-mail, email@example.com.