Social media enhances Anchorage mayoral debate at UAA

One Twitter user asked Anchorage's candidates for mayor how they planned to make the city safer. Another asked about discrimination against the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community.

Social media fueled a student-organized mayoral debate Thursday night at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and moderators peppered candidates with questions pulled seamlessly from Facebook and Twitter. More than 350 people attended, with organizers saying they wanted to find a way to more directly press candidates on issues important to students.

The event was moderated by Jonathon Taylor, chair of the UAA College Republicans, and Chaz Rivas, president of the UAA College Democrats. During the debate, Taylor and Rivas regularly encouraged students and audience members to Tweet or post on Facebook questions for candidates, using the hashtag #usuaadebate.

Based on social media posts, Taylor posed a question to the six mayoral candidates attending -- Amy Demboski, Andrew Halcro, Lance Ahern, Dan Coffey, Ethan Berkowitz and Timothy Huit -- about public safety.

"It's something of real concern to UAA students," Taylor said, saying that he and Rivas were seeing a high volume of tweets and posts on the topic.

Taylor told the candidates that students were alarmed when a woman was stabbed recently while walking on a popular trail near the university, and he noted that the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Office is investigating the university's handling of sexual assaults.

"How will you as mayor -- specifics please -- how will you as mayor work to ensure the citizens of Anchorage feel safe here?" Taylor asked.

In responding, each of the candidates said police staffing needs to be increased, a major consensus of the campaign.

Then Taylor read a tweet from @caitlynryan: "No more questions with the answer 'I'd hire more cops.' "

"People would like specifics," Taylor said. He said the candidates were focusing too much on what "should" change and not on concrete steps they would take.

Ahern said he would "immediately" move to consolidate the city's 911 police and fire dispatch services.

Coffey said he would put members of the Anchorage community on hiring boards for police officers.

Berkowitz said he would station an officer at Bean's Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter, work with the U.S. Marshal's office to coordinate warrants, and reapply for a federal grant to allow Anchorage police officers to follow up on domestic violence writs.

Huit said he would "suit up" and personally work with the police on a temporary basis. Demboski said she would focus on reinstating APD's specialty teams.

Halcro shifted his response away from the police department and said the next mayor "has got to take a stand against the alcohol industry in this town."

"The problems downtown are created by a handful of bad bar owners who have an unbelievable amount of sway in City Hall," Halcro said.

Another question posed by the moderators focused on discrimination and the LGBT community. Rivas asked whether the candidates would adopt a resolution to support House Bill 42, legislation that would protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Rivas said that more tweets and Facebook posts with the #usuaadebate hashtag focused on LGBT discrimination than any other topic.

Only Demboski and Coffey said they would not support such a measure. Demboski reiterated earlier statements that she would veto a measure with the same language as a 2012 proposition that would have added legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people. That measure, Proposition 5, was overwhelmingly rejected by Anchorage voters.

Coffey said he was serving on the Assembly in 2009 when a city ordinance banning discrimination over sexual identity was proposed. He said he listened during multiple rounds of testimony for incidents of discrimination.

"I didn't hear that. I didn't hear descriptions of that and I was listening," Coffey said. He voted against the measure.

At another point in the debate, Demboski and Coffey became embroiled in a disagreement about whether or not the city electric utility buys wind power.

In response to a question about renewable energy development, Demboski referred to wind power as the "most expensive and unreliable power that Municipal Light and Power buys." A few moments later, Coffey corrected her to say that ML&P does not buy wind power, but Chugach Electric does.

Asked Friday about the distinction, city spokesman Bryce Hyslip said Coffey was correct.

After the debate, Taylor said he enjoyed that kind of cross-table exchange between the candidates. He said he also appreciated the chance to press candidates for more specific answers on issues.

Matthieu Ostrander, a member of UAA's student government, said that he, Taylor and other student organizers have attended mayoral candidate forums on or near the UAA campus in recent weeks. But he and Taylor both said they found the forums didn't necessarily cover issues important to students or allow for audience engagement.

"Our goal was … to provide a forum where students could ask those questions through the social media aspect," Taylor said.

Taylor said the student groups are considering organizing a follow-up debate if Tuesday's election goes to a runoff in May.