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Mike Dingman: New chairman means new character for Anchorage Assembly

Mike Dingman

This just in -- leadership matters!

Things probably would not have gone quite as well for the Anchorage School District under the former Assembly, and they certainly would not have gone as smoothly as they did under new Assembly Chair Patrick Flynn.

The best evidence in the last election that your vote matters is that Proposition 3, which would have provided money for library improvements, among other things, failed by 14 votes.

However, the more long-lasting impact is that the balance of power shifted on the Anchorage Assembly.

Pete Petersen beat out Adam Trombley for an East Anchorage Assembly seat that has rotated between liberal and conservative members for several years. Bill Evans won the South Anchorage seat vacated by Chris Birch, who was term limited, keeping a conservative in that seat. This shift in power put Patrick Flynn -- a moderate for sure but still a more progressive member of the Assembly -- in the seat of power.

This is significant for a number of reasons. First, our current mayor, Dan Sullivan, is running for lieutenant governor. Were he to win that election, it would create a vacancy in the mayor's office, which would be filled by the current Assembly chair.

Also, the conservative block, which often sided with Mayor Sullivan, has been broken up.

It became apparent nearly immediately that this Assembly was going to have a much different tenor than its predecessor.

A special meeting to approve the budget and make budgetary changes in light of the fact that they had discovered a $13 million surplus began with public testimony.

The groups supporting schools came out. Wearing their "We Heart ASD" stickers and "Great Alaska Schools" buttons, they lined up and gave impassioned testimony.

After one testifier finished, Assemblyman Bill Starr asked where this line of people testifying was when the Assembly worked on the budget earlier. Almost in unison and as a group, people said, "We were in Juneau!" The crowd then erupted in applause as Chairman Flynn looked on with a smile.

Former chairman Ernie Hall nearly had an aneurysm in similar situations.

Testimony continued, applause continued, and rather than banging the gavel loudly and blasting angry admonitions to the crowd as Hall did during AO 37 hearings, Flynn said -- with a smile -- "I appreciate the applause but we will get through this more quickly if you hold it, thank you."

As to be expected, some applause continued but the meeting moved on smoothly with some very passionate testimony.

One teacher, Jake Todd, told Assembly members to wear what they vote. He said, "If you're going to vote to defund schools, work that into your platform next time you run for office; wear what you vote."

After another teacher attempted to go on past her allotted time, Flynn responded with humor, saying, "If you don't follow the rules, how can you expect your students to do so?"

She laughed, said, "Touché," and sat back down, allowing others to testify.

Public testimony lasted almost two hours, and then it was on to allocating money.

Having more money than expected is an enviable problem. If you've ever paid your monthly bills, started calculating them against your bank account and were left with a number higher than you'd expected, then you know what the Anchorage Assembly is dealing with right now.

Assemblyman Paul Honeman, who phoned in while away at a pre-scheduled conference, dropped his plan to spend $6 million to purchase tennis courts. Other amendments here and there were dropped as well and the primary issues became clear: more funding for the School District due to a higher base student allocation set by the Legislature, funding for school resource officers and property tax relief.

The new Assembly found a happy medium for all of these things. They funded the entire School Resource Officer program, provided the maximum allowable for the Anchorage School District under the newly revised BSA and provided $4.8 million in property tax relief. Both factions of the Anchorage Assembly can claim victory.

What I left with from that meeting, however, was more about intangibles. People left happy. Sure, they got what they wanted but I came away with the feeling that even if they hadn't, they would have been satisfied with the fact that their Assembly listened to them, that the chairman cared about what they had to say and that the process of testifying to their elected officials was pleasant.

Yes, it's a new Assembly, in tenor and in substance.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics.

Mike Dingman