Anchorage Assembly sued over decision to close chambers in August

The Anchorage Assembly gathers on Aug. 12, 2020, for a continued meeting.
The Anchorage Assembly gathers on Aug. 12, 2020, for a continued meeting.(KTUU)
Published: Nov. 15, 2020 at 3:58 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage Assembly and Municipality are being sued over the decision to close the Assembly Chambers to the public in August. The group suing the municipality, Alaskans for Open Meetings, argues in their lawsuit that by closing the chambers to the public, the municipality violated Alaska’s Open Meetings Act.

“Under the Open Meetings Act, anytime a public body is having a meeting, unless it’s an executive session, or a very narrow amount of exceptions that exist, if they’re having a public meeting, it’s got to be open to the public,” said Mario Bird, the attorney representing the group in court.

The chambers were closed due to Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s Emergency Order 15, which limited gathering sizes in Anchorage. Municipal Attorney Kate Vogel defended the decision to close the chambers, arguing telephonic participation was still available.

“The Open Meetings Act, of course, also very explicitly allows for telephonic participation,” she said. “So, from the municipality standpoint, this lawsuit is baseless.”

But Bird wrote in the lawsuit that the telephonic option was flawed, and some who wanted to testify weren’t contacted or were unable to follow the live stream. In the filing, he requests that decisions made during that period be voided and redone.

“We think that it is in the public interest to go back and have the assembly do things according to the law and do it the right way,” he said.

And there were certainly items of public interest covered during that month. While the chambers were closed, multiple protests and demonstrations were held in the plaza outside the chambers in response to a number of controversial items.

The biggest items were an ordinance to purchase four buildings in Anchorage for homeless and addiction treatment services, as well as a ban on conversion therapy. Both are identified in the lawsuit, but Vogel argued there were a number of smaller items decided as well as the allocations for most of Anchorage’s CARES Act funds that were also decided then.

“Also it’s a bunch of smaller details,” she said. “An individual who has their license for liquor renewed, and the proceedings that happened at the municipality with respect to individual licensing actions.”

Bird however argued the OMA was amended in the 90s so that the judge of the case will get to decide which, if any items, are voided.

“We’re confident that the court’s going to take a good look at this and apply the law and, and effect justice,” he said.

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