Anchorage Assembly considers several hot-button items

Mayor’s emergency powers, special election among agenda items
The microphone for public testimony at the Anchorage Assembly lights up as a resident...
The microphone for public testimony at the Anchorage Assembly lights up as a resident approaches the podium.(KTUU)
Published: Nov. 5, 2020 at 5:58 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Big decisions in Anchorage were again up for discussion at a regular Assembly meeting on Wednesday: Should the Assembly extend or terminate the emergency powers of the mayor, an office now filled by Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson? Will Quinn-Davidson retain her office until the regular Municipal Election in April? And what should happen with the budget for the coming fiscal year?

To start, Quinn-Davidson opened the meeting by imploring people in Anchorage and across Alaska to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations regarding COVID-19 prevention.

“It is critical that we turn this situation around,” she said, pointing to mask-wearing, putting a pause on gatherings and keeping your distance as preventive measures residents should be following. “We all want strong businesses and jobs for all […] I ask you to be smart about how to get there.”

Case counts have been climbing at alarming rates within the municipality, particularly when compared to earlier in the pandemic, according to data from the Anchorage Health Department and Department of Health and Social Services. The city and Assembly’s response to those case counts and COVID-19 overall remains a point of tension.

On Wednesday, some attendees were supportive of the Assembly’s actions, but others expressed frustration over emergency health orders and other mandates.

“We can’t move forward and work together if you keep trying to have the city in a state of continued fear,” said one testifier. "I’m unimpressed with your leadership. You need to be listening to all of us, not just people who align with your views.

“I find myself wondering the social engineers of our day are using this virus as an excuse to conduct a social experiment,” she continued, “to see what it takes for people to give up their freedoms. I hope I’m wrong, but I do wonder.”

A teacher who testified focused on schools and said she’s most concerned about the mental health of students.

“We’re seeing behavior problems, kids who are depressed,” she said. “We’ve had issue with suicide in schools, and I think that’s an even bigger issue with all of this is mental health of our students. So please, let’s open up our facilities, open up our schools, and let’s get back on track.”

Others asked that the Assembly consider keeping restrictions in place, if not buckling down on them further.

“Within the last few weeks, we saw our highest daily counts of 526 cases, and we are entering a surge that will rise in the winter months,” said one testifier. “This is not a time to loosen restrictions. Conversely, it is a time to tighten them. I encourage you to extend the emergency order to ensure we are protected.”

After public testimony and consideration of several other agenda items, the Assembly would go on to again formally consider the resolution regarding Quinn-Davidson’s emergency powers – as it has for several meetings now – starting with member Jamie Allard’s motion to amend the resolution in order to terminate the acting mayor’s emergency authority.

“On Nov. 2, Monday, was 158. And it continued to climb,” Allard said of COVID-19 cases within the municipality. "On Nov. 3, Tuesday, it went to 176. Then it decided it wanted to decline. And on Nov. 4, Wednesday, it went down from 176 to 157.

“The acting mayor has called on our community to do what they need to do to make sure these numbers decline,” she said. “And I’m seeing a decline.”

Several members maintained terminating the acting mayor’s emergency powers would be a huge mistake.

“One, discontinuing the emergency order at this point is, frankly, reckless,” said Assembly Member Meg Zalatel. “Two, we set forward a process coming up in which we will hear from the public and consider the current status of where we’re at, what emergency orders may need to continue or be operationalized into ordinances, and what the lay of the land looks like going forward.”

Allard’s motion failed 8-2, with she and member Crystal Kennedy voting in support. The same duo voted against tabling the resolution indefinitely, which passed 8-2.

An ordinance centered on a change to Anchorage Municipal Code that would allow a mayor-elect to take office sooner than July 1, specific to the condition of the office of the mayor being vacant at the time of the election and filled by an acting mayor, failed with a final vote of 6-3, with Member Forrest Dunbar recusing himself.

Also on the agenda were an ordinance excluding e-cigarettes and vaping devices from excise taxes on tobacco products, which would pass with amendments; tax incentives for multi-family and Affordable and Workforce Housing, which would fail; and others.

Consideration of a special election conducted primarily by mail was one of the last items up for discussion on Wednesday. The ordinance - specific to electing a mayor who would serve until July 1, when the mayor elected in the regular April election would be seated - had supporters who cited the Municipal Charter and word of some of their constituents as reasons why the election should be held. Those who opposed the election gave examples such as an acting mayor already being in place, the monetary costs of such an election, and safety concerns during the pandemic as reason to not hold it. With two minutes left in the night, and moments before adjournment at midnight, the ordinance failed after the Assembly voted 6-3 against it.

Several other items passed at the meeting, including recognizing Nov. 11 as Veterans Day, designating Nov. 15th as Anchorage Recycles Day and celebrating November as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.

A resolution was also passed honoring Hydee Caban for her 30 years of public service, with Assembly Chair Felix Rivera calling her “a wonderful source of knowledge.”

“You have been an amazing contribution to the clerk’s office and the Municipality of Anchorage,” said Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson via phone Wednesday, “and I know no one who has done a better job than you.”

The Anchorage Assembly’s next main meeting will be a special meeting held on Nov. 10 during which it will again consider and have public hearings on the appropriation of funds for the 2021 general government operating budget for the municipality.

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