Compass: New city law threatens right to comment

Citizens of Anchorage need to know that their right to testify on municipal issues is under attack and could be undermined by the Anchorage Assembly at tonight's meeting at the Loussac Library. Chairman Ernie Hall's proposed ordinance 2013-63 will allow six votes on the Assembly to arbitrarily close public testimony on all budgets, plans and ordinances. This ordinance creates a perfect political tool for those in power to silence dissent.

Our 1975 Anchorage Municipal Charter opens with a Bill of Rights that guarantees our citizens rights in addition to rights guaranteed by U.S. Constitution and the Alaska Constitution. Anchorage's Charter makes clear its citizens have the right to participate and testify in shaping public laws and decisions. Item 10 of the Charter clearly guarantees:

"The right to be heard at public hearings prior to adoption of proposed six-year plans of the school system and the municipality, or approval of the annual budget or any ordinance (except an emergency ordinance as defined herein)."

Since voters approved the charter 38 years ago, the Assembly has heard testimony by thousands and thousands of citizens. Most public hearings have one to ten people testify. Most Assembly meetings have full agendas with many issues to resolve. So the Assembly typically limits the public hearing in that first meeting, and continues the hearing to the next meeting. Some issues like a school budget, zoning for chickens, siting a homeless shelter or closing a high school swimming pool have attracted 20 to 100 people to testify.

Only a few issues have stirred hundreds of people to testify. Testimony on photo radar in the 1990s lasted months, as did the 2009 ordinance addressing equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. In these cases after many months of public testimony, the chair notified the public in advance of when the hearing would be closing. In both cases, whether a citizen won or lost, they walked away knowing they had their chance to weigh in.

Unfortunately, things have changed. This year during public hearing on the Sullivan, Coffey and Planning Commission rewrite of Title 21, Hall tried to limit the number of people allowed to testify. He started a sign-up sheet and stated that late-comers would not be allowed to sign on. When Hall learned that his actions were potentially illegal, he dropped the early sign-up requirement. Unfortunately, people had already left believing they couldn't speak. The Title 21 experience was a nightmare for the public. Rules about signing up changed from meeting to meeting.

Next came AO 2013-37, the mayor's anti-municipal union ordinance. Hundreds of citizens came to testify on the ordinance and couldn't get in the Assembly Chambers. Four nights of public hearing later, with hundreds still waiting to speak, the Assembly voted to close public testimony and Hall closed the public hearing. Under the 38 years of past Assembly leadership and decades of practice, there would have been weeks or months of hearings, ensuring the public their right to testify.

The American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue. So, Hall sought to create an ordinance to make his actions to limit testimony legal. He settled with the ACLU to address free speech rights. But his ordinance still violates the Bill of Rights in Anchorage's Charter. Six assembly votes can close public testimony no matter how many people are present to testify. The ordinance is dangerous to the public regardless of where you stand; Hall and his fellow "conservatives" could lose control of the Assembly to the "progressives," then this six-vote tactic could be used against conservative citizens's right to speak.

The Assembly's leadership behaviors bring home the challenge of living with political power that disregards fundamental democratic rights promised in our local charter and national Constitution. Chairman Hall's proposed ordinance 2013-63 should be defeated.

Sadly, we do need to create new protections by ordinance or Charter to limit Assembly abuse of power and ensure that the Chairman and Assembly cannot manipulate the public process to silence those with whom they disagree.

Sheila Selkregg is a former member of the Anchorage Assembly and teaches public administration and public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage.