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Judge denies immediate action in lawsuit accusing Anchorage Assembly of open meetings violations

  • Author: Aubrey Wieber
  • Updated: December 12, 2020
  • Published December 11, 2020

A state judge on Friday denied a request to pause the effect of all legislation passed by the Anchorage Assembly during an August closure to in-person participation related to COVID-19. The ruling came in a lawsuit against the Municipality of Anchorage that alleges the closure violated open meetings law.

The plaintiff in the case, a group called Alaskans for Open Meetings, argued last week that Anchorage Superior Court Judge Una Gandbhir should rule that all legislation passed by the Assembly during the monthlong shutdown should be voided, as it was passed without in-person participation. Members of the public were instead allowed to testify via phone or email, and the meetings were streamed and broadcast on TV.

In her ruling, Gandbhir called a preliminary injunction an “extraordinary remedy.”

“At this time, the evidence before this court simply does not support injunctive relief,” she wrote.

The case now continues. No future court dates have been scheduled.

During August, an emergency order imposed by former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz placed restrictions on gathering sizes, meaning the Assembly could only have a maximum of 15 people in the chambers at once. Because of this, a skeleton crew of members, staff and media was allowed in the chambers for the meetings, but the public was not allowed in.

During a hearing on Dec. 4, lawyers for Alaskans for Open Meetings argued that had the meetings been entirely virtual, with members joining via a video platform like Zoom, it would have been fine to disallow in-person testimony. But by having some members participate in-person, they were required to allow the public the same access.

Lawyers for the city disagreed, saying open meetings law clearly allows telephonic participation.

The Assembly took up several high-profile issues in August, such as purchasing buildings for homeless services, use of federal CARES Act funds and a ban on so-called conversion therapy for minors.

The plaintiffs asked the court to nullify all policy passed during the shutdown. In her ruling, Gandbhir said such a measure would “have a potentially huge impact on the larger community.”

A ruling in Alaskans for Open Meetings’ favor could also prevent the city from holding meetings without in-person testimony during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Anchorage, Gandbhir wrote. Such a ruling would be “overbroad and ill-conceived,” she wrote.

Gandbhir also wrote that to this point, Alaskans for Open Meetings has not demonstrated the group is more likely than not to prevail overall in the case, though she said both sides have raised significant legal issues.