During a sixth chaotic night of public comment on a proposed mask mandate in Anchorage, a dispute broke out between the Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration and Assembly members that culminated with a member of the administration abruptly removing a plexiglass shield from the dais.
The largely anti-mandate crowd broke into chants of “USA! USA! USA!” after calls from the Assembly chair to stop disruptions, and many more people lined up to comment against the ordinance.
Opponents have shown up en masse night after night. Mayor Dave Bronson and Assembly member Jamie Allard, ardent opponents of COVID-19 restrictions and masking requirements, have encouraged comments and engaged in procedural tactics that extend the process.
Mask ordinance opponents on social media encouraged families to bring their children to testify, and many did. A group served pizza to attendees in the entrance to the library.
The proposed mask ordinance would require people in Anchorage to wear masks indoors in public spaces in an effort to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
The Assembly has not yet made it through public comment to actually debate the ordinance. Testimony is scheduled to continue at 3 p.m. Friday. So far, members have proposed 14 amendments and more are likely to be introduced.
Several Assembly members have said the extended public comment has grown into in an attempt to slow the Assembly process. Early in the meeting, Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance ruled that in order to speed up the meetings, no members could ask questions of commenters.
After that, the Bronson administration ordered a private security contractor to leave the chambers and removed the see-through shield between speakers and Assembly members.
Comment against the ordinance frequently ended in standing ovations, applause and shouting. Occasionally, speakers asked the crowd to stand in silence for the duration of their allotted three minutes to protest the ordinance.
“Push it back — as long as we have testimony, they can’t vote,” Anchorage resident Christine Hill said to cheers from the crowd.
Another man said the issue is “not about masks.” “This is a question between good and evil,” he said, and the crowd erupted in cheers.
Another speaker called Assembly members and mask supporters “liberal scum” and “snowflakes.”
Another warned Assembly members who are facing re-election in April that “we’re getting our backbone, we’re standing tall, we’re locking our knees and we’re coming after you.”
At one point, teen girls led the crowd in singing a round of the national anthem.
Just a few people in the crowd Thursday were there to support the mask ordinance. The Assembly also receives written testimony, which has leaned heavily in favor of the ordinance: As of just before 5 p.m. Thursday, members had received 1,901 written comments in support of the mask ordinance and 1,080 in opposition, according to member Austin Quinn-Davidson.
LaFrance’s ruling that no more questions from Assembly members would be allowed during the public hearing sparked frustration among Bronson administration officials and Assembly members from Eagle River, who have largely aligned themselves with the mayor.
“I am very concerned that you — the chair’s ruling — is setting precedent for elected officials not to be able to ask their constituency or those that they might not even represent questions, and I do believe this would be legally challenged,” Allard said.
Municipal Manager Amy Demboski said the ruling restricts the free speech of elected officials and that if the motion to end questions moved forward, she anticipates “legal action on behalf of the administration.”
LaFrance said that questions asked of commenters — many of which have come from Allard and Bronson during the last five meetings — have often been off topic and are intended to cause delay.
“Assembly members and the mayor’s questions can effectively provide certain members of the public with more time to speak, which is not fair,” LaFrance said. “Assembly member questions of testifiers have also frequently been inappropriately used to conduct debate with members of the public, which has the effect of discouraging public testimony under threat of having their testimony challenged by political figures.”
Dean Gates, the Assembly’s legal counsel, said that the First Amendment right of public officials to speak is not infringed upon by LaFrance’s ruling. The ruling is “narrowly tailored to a very specific circumstance” to help the Assembly complete business related to an important public health issue, he said.
“We’re in our sixth day of using our city resources and time and so forth. And that, I think, might be unprecedented,” he said.
Assembly members in a 3-8 vote upheld the chair’s ruling to end questioning of commenters.
Shortly afterward, Adam Trombley, the city’s director of economic and community development, picked up and removed the plexiglass shield.
“The Assembly has a COVID-19 mitigation plan. We just saw the administration thwart the plan by removing the plexiglass on their own initiative,” LaFrance said in response.
“This is a separation of powers issue,” she said. “The plexiglass isn’t just for elected officials and members of the public, but for staff who are required to be here. This action is out of order and disrespectful. However, we are here to conduct a public hearing and listen to members of the public.”
Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said that Bronson asked to have the plexiglass removed.
“Mr. Trombley was asked by Mayor Bronson to take down the plexiglass because numerous people over the past week and a half who were testifying said they could not see all of the Assembly members and it was inhibiting their views,” Young said in an email.
During the meeting, several Assembly members, including LaFrance, noted that security was missing from the chambers.
At one point, Vice Chair Chris Constant accused the mayor of forcing security to leave the building “in an attempt to create a more hostile environment” — though he quickly rescinded the statement.
“I take that back. I shouldn’t speak to motive,” he said.
When questioned about security’s absence, Demboski told Assembly member Forrest Dunbar that the Anchorage Police Department was acting as the security presence in the chambers.
“Because of the size of the crowd and frankly, the need for security, APD is leading the security effort for this meeting this evening. Frankly, I think it is the best option to keep the crowd safe and to keep Assembly members safe,” Demboski said.
Young said that the security team members are not always inside the chambers and not just for the Assembly’s use but are responsible for monitoring the entire library property.
“Right now the security contractor is monitoring the entire Loussac Library and the Wilda Marston Theater, where the overflow of people is happening and APD can’t be,” he said.
Watch the meeting: