The people of Anchorage have the right to be heard at public hearings prior to the adoption of any municipal ordinance.
This is not simply a suggestion. It is a guarantee in the Bill of Rights of the Anchorage Charter, which is the constitution of our local government. The charter was adopted by the voters in 1976, and I had the privilege to participate in writing it.
In order to address this issue, the Assembly appointed a Citizens Task Force in June to advise them about their public hearing process. We delivered our report to the Assembly last week.
The foundation of our deliberation is a belief that the public's involvement in law-making results in better laws. We started our report with a set of principles, which, among others, includes:
1. The purpose of the public hearing process is to solicit the views, knowledge and ideas of community members to help shape government action.
2. The public hearing process should be open, accessible, predictable, inclusive, transparent and practicable. (This means all are welcomed, what will happen is predictable and the rules apply similarly for all participants.)
3. Discussion of controversial issues with the community in public forums prior to Assembly introduction is desirable because it expands the pool of problem solving skills focused on the issue. (In this one, we discussed how no one likes to be surprised and everyone needs some time to thoughtfully consider the consequences of a proposal.)
The principles are followed by recommendations. Some are basic, like:
• Once a public hearing is started, all people who come to testify should be afforded an opportunity to testify. (This holds even if there are a lot of people, and even if it is an emotional or complex topic.)
• The public should feel welcomed at Assembly meetings.
• Assembly members should listen attentively to the members of the community who come to testify.
Other recommendations are easy to implement:
• The rules of public hearings should be printed on the agenda.
• The title of an ordinance should accompany the assigned number in the public hearing notice.
• Copies of any "Substitute" or "S" version of an ordinance should be available for public review.
• A sign-up list may be employed to facilitate management of a public hearing so all who seek to testify may be heard in an orderly manner. It is not a tool to discourage or limit testimony.
A few recommendations were more complicated:
• Explore the use of volunteer "navigators," such as high school students or retirees, at the Assembly meetings to show the public the location of the printed materials, clarify the process and advise people where the Assembly is on the agenda.
• When a "Substitute" or "S" version of an ordinance is introduced, it should be accompanied by a written description of what has been changed from the original version.
• The public record of an ordinance should be expanded to include not only the record of those testifying at the Assembly Chambers but also all written materials and all emails or electronic testimony distributed to Assembly members by the municipal clerk.
Some recommendations may cost some money, such as:
• The Assembly should invest in a "reader board" in the Assembly meeting room, modeled after electronic boards in airports, so the public can know what issues the Assembly is on and what has been delayed, canceled or disposed of.
• An electronic kiosk should be set up at the entrance to the Assembly Chambers so citizens may access the municipal site that displays the "public record" on each ordinance or resolution.
• The municipal website should be revised to be more user friendly.
• Acoustics should be improved in the Assembly Chambers.
• The budget of the community councils should be reviewed for possible increase to facilitate communication and neighborhood participation.
We encourage citizens to review the recommendations and contact community councils and Assembly members to share ideas about implementation.
Jane Angvik, former charter commissioner and Assembly member, chaired the Citizens Task Force on public hearings. Other members were Bob Churchill, Federation of Community Councils; Jim Barnett, former Assembly member; Penny Goodstein, Interfaith Council of Anchorage; Joelle Hall, director of operations, Alaska AFL-CIO State Federation; Andy Holleman, president, Anchorage Education Association; Amanda Moser, deputy municipal clerk; Tim Potter, owner, Dowl HKM; Carolyn Ramsey, 40-year resident and community volunteer; Cheryl Richardson, Anchorage Citizen's Coalition; and Arliss Sturgulewski, Former charter commissioner, Assembly member and Alaska state senator. Their full report is on the municipal website, www.muni.org.