For one confusing moment at an Anchorage Assembly meeting earlier this month, Chairman Ernie Hall thought he had more power than he does.
The misunderstanding: whether it takes a super-majority of eight votes to override the Assembly chairman.
Hall had ruled to limit public testimony during the open comment period at the end of a meeting. That's normally a time for people to speak their minds to the assembly.
But during that Sept. 10 meeting, Hall ruled that people who already testified during a public hearing -- the contentious fluoride issue then being decided, or anything else -- couldn't testify again on that same subject during the same meeting's public participation time. Actually, he first said they could testify again, the opposite of what he meant.
"Is it 'can' or 'can't'?" one Assembly member wondered out loud.
Hall explained that he was going on past practice, and people who already testified didn't get a second turn on the same topic at the same meeting. But they could come to the next meeting and testify about whatever they wanted, he said.
A resolution to support continued fluoride use in the city drinking water drew public testimony at that meeting from two dozen people, many of them anti-fluoride. After the resolution passed, the anti-fluoride crowd lined up to speak again during the open comment period, just as they've been doing for years.
On a 7-4 vote, the Assembly voted to overturn Hall's decision.
After one of the city's leading activists against fluoride had a second turn at the microphone, Hall announced that he had just heard from the municipal attorney on how many of the 11 Assembly members it took to overturn him.
"I would like to point out that the municipal attorney has pointed out to me that it takes over eight votes to override the chair. That was a 7-4 vote. So the rule of the chair applies," Hall said. He turned to the next citizen standing up to speak. "If you've got a topic other than fluoride that you want to testify on, sir, you are more than welcome to do it."
But the city attorney, Dennis Wheeler, never advised him on the matter. Instead Hall said he misunderstood what the city clerk, Barbara Jones, was whispering. She was going to check with the city attorney on whether a super- majority was needed, but didn't yet know, Wheeler explained in an email later.
"It was a case of confusion occurring," Hall said. "I wish I could say that was the first time that ever happened."
It takes just six Assembly votes to overturn a ruling of the chairman, Wheeler said. And the eight-vote super majority? That's what it takes to override a veto by the mayor.
An Assembly task force is working on protocols for public testimony. A recommendation should come before the Assembly next month, Hall said.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER