Assembly postpones decision on limiting public testimony

Casey Grove

It was round two Tuesday in the fight over the Anchorage Assembly’s power over public testimony to the body, and challengers scored a knockout.

Decisions on extending or ending public testimony on a particular topic, after an initial hearing, would have been up to the Assembly chairperson under the first ordinance submitted by current Chairman Ernie Hall in April. But Hall submitted a more democratic version at Tuesday night’s meeting: If a majority of the Assembly members vote against extending testimony, under the new proposal, testimony would end, regardless of how many people remained on the list. The ordinance would also require anyone wishing to testify to sign up at the initial hearing, even if the Assembly extends testimony to a later date.

The Assembly heard from dozens of people opposed to the ordinance Tuesday and later voted to postpone it indefinitely.

Hall’s ordinance came on the heels of an Assembly decision in March to end public testimony on a controversial rewrite of city labor laws — which the Assembly passed 6-5 despite overwhelming testimony against it — and a municipal election in which Hall nearly lost his seat to an upstart, union-backed candidate hammering him on the public testimony issue.

Those favoring Hall’s proposal said lengthy public testimony can stall an ordinance for weeks or months if hundreds of people sign up to speak. Opponents, who comprised the entirety of those testifying Tuesday, said that direct speech to the Assembly is a guaranteed right under municipal charter and a crucial part of writing new city laws.

Tuesday night, Hall moved scheduled public testimony on the public testimony ordinance to the end of the meeting. What came next seemed to underscore one of the main criticisms of its opponents: It’s already somewhat difficult for working people to set aside time to give public testimony.

Hall allowed Richard Evans to testify early, because Evans was taking time off from one of his three jobs to testify Tuesday. Evans, a painter with dried paint on his hands, said his right to free speech was something his pilot father fought and almost died for in World War II.

“I see certain members of this Assembly speaking against the people, over and over, and again trying to cut down the voice of the people,” Evans said. “I will be heard before this Assembly, and I demand my right to speak before this Assembly, because it is the government of this city and the government of me. And I will not be silenced. You will take away my right to speak over my cold, buried corpse.”

Deborah Kelly, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said keeping public testimony open allowed her to learn about issues before deciding to testify.

“I realize it’s a messy process sometimes. But democracy is supposed to be messy. It’s supposed to be fair,” Kelly said.

When the testimony ended, Assemblyman Bill Starr moved to table the ordinance. Several Assembly members recommended sending the issue to a task force.

“We are in this together. The idea that we would need an organized structure at this level is a good thing, we’ve just got to figure out a way that is not an intimidation,” Starr said. “There is some work that needs to be done.”

Hall said he brought forward the ordinance due to concerns from the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union about the Assembly’s decision to end testimony in March.

“Their comment was you need to be consistent. You need to do this the same way every time,” Hall said. “I want everybody to understand that. this was not something I set out to do. I set out to address a concern.”

The Assembly voted unanimously to postpone the issue indefinitely.