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Task force presents solutions to public comment gridlock at Anchorage Assembly

Sean Doogan
Ever since the city cut off public testimony over a labor-law rewrite with more than 150 people still waiting to speak, an 11-member public task force has been studying how to improve the process and accommodate rare instances of overwhelming public interest in local government. Tara Young photo

Commenting on city business may get a little easier in the future. Maybe. Rules currently governing public comment at weekly Anchorage Assembly meetings have been under scrutiny since the city cut off public debate over the controversial labor law rewrite, AO-37.

Ever since, an 11-member public task force born out of the silenced opposition has been studying how to get everyone’s voices heard. In all, hundreds testified about AO-37.  Most were firmly against the proposed labor law rewrite.  Before testimony was shut down, the Assembly had heard more than 20 hours of public comment, with more than 150 people still wanting to speak. 

AO-37 would limit the contract bargaining power of Anchorage’s eight municipal unions. But that’s not all. The ordinance:
•  Sets the bar for raises at 1 percent above annual inflation as calculated by the Consumer Price Index
•  Eliminates longevity bonuses for city workers, and
•  Prevents Anchorage city employees from going on strike.

AO-37 was ultimately approved, by a 6-5 vote, but has since been suspended while a court case, a citizen’s referendum, and an Assembly ordinance to overturn it work their way through the system.

Generally, people who testify at an Anchorage Assembly meeting get three minutes to talk. There is usually an unofficial list kept of those waiting to speak at meetings where more than a handful of people show up. Current regulations in the city charter don’t spell out a good way to handle an influx of people -- whose testimony can take hours or even days to complete -- preventing other agenda items from being finished. 

The only mandate: to allow for a reasonable amount of time for public comment.

It’s hard to gauge how many folks, if any, will turn out on any given week for Anchorage Assembly debate. One week it’s empty chambers at the Z.J. Loussac Library in Midtown Anchorage; the next, it’s overflow crowds. Public testimony waxes and wanes depending on the issue at hand.

Hot-button issues tend to attract long-winded debates that prolong Assembly proceedings for hours, even days, as the public comments are exhausted. Hundreds of people each speaking three minutes can quickly arrest city business.

The labor law rewrite offers a prime example of how public comment gets out of control when policy is being pushed through the process too quickly and without time for vetting. AO-37 was a major shift in the way employees of the municipality get treated. And it was fast-tracked through the process: A mere two weeks from introduction, it had gone through debate and been voted into law.

“If you surprise the public about something, you will probably get a response, like what happened during AO-37,” said Jane Angvik, chair of the Citizen’s Task Force on the Assembly Public Hearing Process, and former Assembly member.

Angvik’s group -- which also includes another former Assemblyman, Jim Barnett, and former Alaska gubernatorial candidate Arliss Sturgulewski -- presented its suggestions to the Assembly earlier this month. Chief among them: to standardize the public hearing process, and give citizens as much time to testify as needed so that everyone who wants to have a say, can.

The group wants the Assembly to upgrade its chambers, by building a better reader board -- so anyone at the meeting can easily see what has already been done, what issues have been delayed or canceled, and what is left on the night’s meeting schedule. The current board is a large projection screen that only has a sentence or two about the current item up for consideration.

Some of the group's nine recommendations will be easily adopted by the Assembly -- items like having the Municipal clerk keep and maintain a list of people wishing to testify, or allowing new people to sign up to speak as long as testimony is continuing. Others will be harder to implement.

“Some are simple policy shift. Some require ordinances or changes. Some require money,” Angvik said. 

Angvik doesn’t believe the Assembly has ever been “held hostage” by a special interest group packing its chambers to hold up passage or defeat of a controversial ordinance. 

But current Assembly chair Ernie Hall disagrees.

“That’s what happened during public comment over AO-64,” Hall said.

AO-64 would have prevented discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation. It passed the Assembly, in August, 2009, but was vetoed by Mayor Dan Sullivan, about a week later. The measure was introduced to the Anchorage Assembly by outgoing Mayor Matt Claman in June of that year. But hundreds of people -- showing up each night to testify about the measure -- kept pushing a vote back.  Opponents, and supporters organized crowds of people to speak at Assembly meetings. Then-Assembly chair, Debbie Ossiander allowed anyone who wanted, a chance to testify -- even if they did not actually live in Anchorage. The result was almost two months of public comment on the issue.

Hall believes opponents of the measure ran out the clock on a vote past the July 1 swearing-in of Mayor Sullivan -- who opposed the ordinance.

“If it had been voted on sooner, (Mayor) Claman wouldn’t have vetoed it, and it would have become law,” Hall said.

As for the current effort to define the public process, Angvik said it is now up to the Assembly. The Rules committee will look at the task force’s recommendations, and then forward them to the body for a vote. The results will influence how people interact with, and how they feel about, the effectiveness of their local politicians.

“How people are treated in that process (public testimony) is really important in their view of the responsiveness of government,” Angvik said.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com

Correction: Upon first publication, the previous article incorrectly reported that AO-37 passed by the tally 7-4. Our mistake has been corrected.