Assembly takes up chairman's proposal on public testimony

Casey Grove

It was the public hearing on how to end all public hearings.

The Anchorage Assembly took its first look Tuesday at Chairman Ernie Hall’s proposal to change how the public gives testimony during hearings, including the chairman or chairwoman’s power to extend or cut off testimony.

Supporters say clarifying rules on testimony would standardize the process and prevent people from stalling a particular hearing on an ordinance by signing up to testify in droves. Opponents say it would allow the chairman or chairwoman to unfairly restrict testimony with which he or she does not agree.

Under City Charter, Anchorage residents have a right to the opportunity to speak to their Assembly members on ordinances.

Hall’s ordinance comes after he decided not to extend public testimony on a controversial labor law revision limiting the power of the city’s unions. The ordinance, written by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, had brought hundreds of union members to the Assembly’s chambers. It takes away the ability of city unions to strike, among other changes. It also holds pay raises in any year to the cost of living plus

1 percent of total pay.

Nearly 300 people spoke to the Assembly in a hearing that stretched over four Assembly meetings. In a rare move, Hall closed the hearing with names still on the list to testify.

With testimony out of the way, the Assembly passed the mayor’s ordinance 6-5 in late March. Then Hall nearly lost his seat to a last-second write-in candidate, Nick Moe, who railed against Hall’s decision on public testimony and garnered strong support from the unions. Hall said he would introduce his own ordinance to clarify the rules on public testimony.

Hall’s ordinance would leave it to the Assembly chair to decide if public testimony should be extended past the original meeting date to accomodate anyone still on the list to testify. It has been standard practice in the past to do so. But the change would make it so the Assembly chair can end the testimony.

In taking up the issue Tuesday, the Assembly began to hear public testimony on the rules of public testimony.

“When you refuse to hear from the public because you don’t think you have enough time to do so, you’re making decisions based on ignorance and you’re limiting free speech … ” Jed Whittaker said. “I just know, in the interest of good government, you ought to be listening to everybody that wants to speak.”

Responding to another person opposed to Hall’s ordinance, Assemblyman Bill Starr used the F word: filibuster. Flooding the public testimony with hundreds of people slows down the public process, Starr said.

 “Tonight, tomorrow night, the next night — is it fair to just continue on like that?” Starr asked.

The ability of a chairperson to close public testimony should be applied fairly and evenly, said Tom Stinson, legal director for the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Stifling speech to the Assembly should not be based on the content of that speech, Stinson said. “What we need is an objective standard.”

Shelly Andreson said she worried about a provision in the ordinance that said someone hoping to testify had to sign up at the first hearing on the ordinance. Andreson said that would be inconvenient for people who work past 5 p.m. — when Assembly meetings start — and that written public comments are sometimes not sufficient.

“You’re eliminating the ability of those workers to testify,” she said. “I want you to see me face to face. Not as a number. As a human being.”

The Assembly extended public testimony on the public testimony ordinance until its next meeting.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the Assembly entered an executive session — that is, a closed-door meeting — to discuss the city’s strategy in fighting a lawsuit related to the labor law rewrite. Opponents to the rewrite had tried to put the issue before voters in an election. They sued the city after the city’s attorney rejected putting the referendum on a ballot, on the basis that the ordinance the Assembly passed is exempt to repeal by voters because it deals with administrative issues.