The end of an Anchorage Assembly meeting on Wednesday night erupted in yelling as Assembly Chair Felix Rivera and member Jamie Allard had a heated exchange that ended with Allard threatening possible legal action against Rivera if he cut off her microphone in the future.
During the exchange, Rivera said Allard had made comments at a meeting the previous day about immigration at the Texas border that he characterized as “dripping with xenophobia.”
Rivera read aloud a long rebuff to her comment, and Allard then spoke out in protest. Rivera eventually turned off her microphone.
Allard on Tuesday night had floated the idea that the high COVID-19 case rates in Texas could be due to “illegal immigrants coming through” and carrying the virus.
In an interview Thursday, Rivera said, “I think it’s really important that we hold ourselves accountable for the things that we say, and I think it’s especially important for me as a member of the Latinx community to speak up when members say things that are inaccurate and hurtful to the community I belong to.”
In an interview Thursday, Allard said, “Felix Rivera personally attacked me with his lies, and did not allow me to defend myself as he cut my mic. This is what your elected officials have now become: bullies.”
She called Rivera’s assertion that her comment was xenophobic “slanderous.”
Assembly meetings have often been contentious over the last year, and disagreements over how the city should deal with the coronavirus pandemic, homelessness and other issues have deepened political divides among some members. Allard and Rivera have opposed each other on both issues.
Rivera recently prevailed against an effort to recall him from office.
The dispute on Wednesday grew from a sometimes tense meeting on Tuesday, during which the Assembly voted narrowly to extend the city’s COVID-19 emergency declaration.
Lengthy public testimony preceded the vote, with residents who showed up in person testifying against it, and many residents calling in to testify in support of the extension.
One man who spoke in person against the emergency declaration said that he had recently talked with another man, a highly skilled worker, who is leaving the state to go to Texas because of the lack of economic opportunities in Alaska.
After his testimony, Allard, who has consistently voted against such extensions, asked him a question.
“OK, so you had mentioned, you have a friend going down to Texas, but we just heard someone from the administration testified ... but he just testified saying that they’re being overrun with COVID. So, isn’t it possible that it’s because the borders have been being infiltrated and that the illegal immigrants coming through have been identified as carrying the virus?” Allard asked.
“It’s absolutely possible,” the man replied.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Jason Bockenstedt, had used Texas as an example of a state that has recently revoked its mask mandate and subsequently saw cancellations of planned events and conventions in its cities.
Before voting, Rivera addressed Allard’s comments to the man.
“I very much feel the need to reject the comments made during public testimony by the member of Chugiak-Eagle River regarding the Texas border. There’s much more I’d love to say but I’ll just leave it at that,” Rivera said.
On Wednesday, Rivera addressed Allard’s comment again, reading a written statement at the end of the Assembly meeting, saying that her comment on the Texas border is “deserving of further critique.”
“Since yesterday, many constituents have reached out to me, both thanking me for speaking out and imploring that more needs to be said,” Rivera said. “Now, I’m typically not one to make scathing critiques of other members’ comments, but I am making notable exception tonight, because at some point, enough has to be enough.”
Rivera said that Anchorage residents who told him after the meeting that they are angry that “such comments are even allowed in these chambers.”
“I continue to defend the right of the member to speak — of any member — no matter how ignorant, misinformed, hurtful, or, to quote one of my constituents, xenophobic,” Rivera said. “I also defend our right, ability, and — at times like this — responsibility to speak out against these types of comments.”
He then read a definition of xenophobia: “Dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries.”
“Whether meaning to or not, and I cannot speak to intent, but the comments made by the member from Chugiak-Eagle River were dripping with xenophobia and served no purpose ... "
Allard then interrupted and called for a point of order, and Rivera let her speak.
“Are you accusing a Chugiak-Eagle River member of something that you would just like to flat out say instead of flowering it?” Allard said.
Rivera replied that he was going to finish his comments.
“So what are you actually accusing me of?” Allard said. “I’m just going to say it right here in the public.”
Rivera said he was going to finish his comments and turned off Allard’s microphone.
In the video of the meeting, Allard can be heard muffled in the background briefly, speaking out in protest as Rivera continued.
Rivera then spoke about Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s approach to immigrants at the Texas border, saying he was “demonizing asylum seekers” and that the higher infection rates in Texas could possibly be due to the governor “rescinding the mask mandate and other health protections.”
“I implore that the member from Chugiak-Eagle River refrain from making misinformed comments that stoke fear division and hatred in our community. It is not representative of who we are as a community and frankly, reflects poorly on us as a body,” Rivera said. “Enough is enough.”
He then said it was time for a motion to adjourn the meeting, at which time Allard loudly said, “The next time you turn off my mic, we’re going to have an issue and don’t think I won’t take you to court over it.”
‘Out of order’
In an interview Thursday, Rivera said Allard’s comment about immigrants was “no more than political theatrics.”
“All it did was create a divide, make people angry, and just cause a ruckus. And we don’t need those things, we have too much work to get done,” he said. “You don’t need those types of distractions that hurt people and just add on to years and years and years of injustice that parts of our community have faced.”
He said that he had turned off Allard’s mic because she was “out of order,” according to the rules that the Assembly follows, Robert’s Rules of Order.
He said he responded to her point of order and then moved on, but that she continued to interrupt him without appealing his ruling or calling for a different point of order.
“If she didn’t like what I was saying, then she should have raised the point of order that this is violating the rules of decorum, but she didn’t do that,” Rivera said.
Assembly Vice Chair John Weddleton said that if Allard had followed the rules of order, she could have requested a chance to respond after Rivera finished.
“Robert’s Rules are there for a reason,” Weddleton said. “You don’t get into shouting matches, you’re more effective in your responses.”
Allard in an interview said that she had little time to collect herself in the moment.
“I was absolutely blindsided,” Allard said Thursday. She called Rivera’s comments a “calculated personal attack.”
Allard said she is a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Italy and Chile.
“I’m a Latina, but I don’t use that as an excuse to not be where I think I want to be or where I should be. I don’t use my skin color and my race to determine where I should be in my life,” Allard said. “My family are hardworking individuals and they’re very successful. I wasn’t taught to use race as a crutch.”
Allard said that it is not the first time Rivera has cut off her microphone or overruled her and prevented her from speaking “on several occasions.”
It shouldn’t matter if Assembly members disagree over issues, she said. The chair’s role is to ensure the meeting goes as planned and that members follow the rules.
She said that in attacking her comment unnecessarily, accusing her of xenophobia and not letting her speak, Rivera broke the rules.
“For him to deliberately attack an Assembly member based on that person’s beliefs or that I represent the community that has elected me is unethical, and it needs to be challenged,” Allard said. “He should no longer be the chair.”