Interruptions, outbursts return to Anchorage Assembly as public hearing stretches into 6th night

Contracted security left the chambers early and Bronson’s administration removed a plexiglass barrier that was part of assembly’s COVID-19 mitigation
Members of the Anchorage Assembly hear testimony from residents on a proposed ordinance that...
Members of the Anchorage Assembly hear testimony from residents on a proposed ordinance that would require masks during a Monday, Oct. 4, 2021 public hearing in the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Oct. 7, 2021 at 10:45 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As the Anchorage Assembly opened a sixth round of public comment on a proposed ordinance that would require wearing masks within the city, the meeting saw a return to the boisterous testimony, loud outbursts and disruptions from an unruly crowd that marked earlier meetings last week.

In a special meeting Thursday that was a continued public hearing for the proposed ordinance, members of the audience that filled the Anchorage Assembly Chambers cheered, yelled at assembly members, and protested by standing at the podium for the rest of their time if they finished speaking before their standard three minutes were up. When that happened, the crowd clapped, cheered and sometimes broke out into chants.

Many people had brought young children to testify as well. At one point, the crowd began singing the Star-Spangled Banner.

The assembly has been hearing public testimony for the last week about an ordinance it is considering that would require masks to be worn while indoors in public spaces in Anchorage, as Alaska contends with a surge of COVID-19 cases and the highest rate of new cases in the nation. The assembly did not debate the ordinance Thursday night, and the hearing was continued to Friday at 3 p.m.

About an hour into Thursday’s meeting, between two members of the public testifying, Director of Economic and Community Development Adam Trombley walked up to the podium and removed the plexiglass barrier that was in place as part of the assembly’s mitigation measures. The audience erupted into shouts and cheers, and Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance called for a break.

After the break, LaFrance addressed Trombley’s removal of the plexiglass barrier, saying that the assembly has a COVID-19 mitigation plan in place for its meetings.

“We just saw the administration thwart the plan by removing the plexiglass on their own initiative,” she said. “This is a separation of powers issue. 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, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said via email that Trombley had been asked by Anchorage Mayor Dave 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.”

The removal of the plexiglass barrier followed a lengthy exchange among the assembly, during which LaFrance, in an effort to allow more time for people to speak, made a ruling that assembly members would not be able to ask follow up questions after people testified for the rest of the public hearing. The ruling applied only to this public hearing, not to future meetings.

She said the practice of asking multiple follow up questions after a member of the public was done speaking had become dilatory, or wasting time. Assembly members Jamie Allard and Crystal Kennedy, and Bronson have consistently asked additional questions during the recent public hearings, though other members of the assembly have occasionally asked testifiers questions as well.

“A pattern of dilatory questions has been established,” LaFrance said. “Whereby the questions raised by members during the public hearing have interfered with the rights of members of the public to be heard. Moreover, this pattern has at times doubled or tripled the usual three minute time for a speaker.”

LaFrance said that, having heard from hundreds of people on the ordinance already, the assembly is unlikely at this point to hear any “new facet to the support or opposition to the ordinance,” other than personal anecdotes.

“And additional questions to speakers serves little purpose other than the dilatory pattern,” she said. “I will not infringe on the public’s right to speak at this public hearing for the three minutes each person is allotted.”

Kennedy moved to override LaFrance’s ruling as the chair. A lengthy debate took place among the assembly and members of Bronson’s administration.

“My due diligence of asking community members questions has never wavered ever since I’ve sat on this body,” Allard said. “Since day one my pattern has always been to have community involvement and ask questions regardless if I agree or disagree.”

Eventually, the assembly voted down the motion to override LaFrance’s ruling, so it remained intact and assembly members did not ask additional follow up questions after members of the public spoke.

Security in the assembly chambers

People attending Thursday’s meeting became louder and more disruptive as the hearing went on. They often cheered, clapped, jeered and shouted at members of the assembly, and caused LaFrance to call for several breaks in the meeting.

When LaFrance was addressing the removal of the plexiglass barrier at the public testimony podium, she went on to say that she “also learned that the administration has removed the security contractor from the assembly chambers.” An Anchorage police officer on the scene confirmed to Alaska’s News Source that the contracted security had left the chambers.

“It is my intent to continue the public hearing in a safe and orderly manner,” LaFrance said. “We want to hear from as many members of the public as we can.”

The assembly then resumed hearing comments from the public.

In an email, Young said that the private security contractor works at the Loussac Library, covering the entire building. He said the security contractor was still inside the building monitoring the library and the Wilda Marston Theatre used for overflow seating at assembly meetings.

Members of the Anchorage Police Department remained within the actual assembly chambers.

While the assembly was trying to settle on a day and time to continue the public hearing to, the crowd became so loud and disruptive that Allard raised her voice and told them to allow LaFrance to finish speaking.

“Stop, stop, stop, stop,” she said to the crowd. “... Let the chair ... let the chair do what she needs to do. Please just stop, for me, just stop.”

Assembly member Forrest Dunbar asked the city administration what time the contracted security would be able to staff a meeting on Friday, and also asked why security had left the assembly chambers early.

“Because of the size of the crowd and frankly the need for security,” said Municipal Manager Amy Demboski. “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 told the assembly that the contracted security would not be available until Friday in the afternoon.

The assembly eventually voted to continue the meeting to 3 p.m. on Friday. They also voted that the public hearing will not end before 6 p.m., though they will be able to extend it further if needed. Assembly member Felix Rivera said it’s not likely the public hearing will be over by the end of Friday.

Proposed amendments

The majority of in-person testimony on the proposed measure over the last week has been in opposition, though some people who have called in and spoken in person have asked the assembly to pass the ordinance.

The assembly has also received nearly 3,000 emailed comments about the proposed mask requirement. Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson said that, as of about 5 p.m. Thursday, the assembly had received 1,081 emailed comments that were opposed to the ordinance, and 1,901 in favor of it.

Members of the assembly cannot begin debating the measure or making amendments to it until the public hearing has ended, but so far there are 14 proposed amendments to the ordinance that have been submitted.

Chief among them is an amendment that would remove a controversial part of the ordinance that would allow private enforcement of the ordinance by residents.

“It is removed because most residents will follow the law and that will be effective in bringing COVID cases down,” Zaletel told Alaska’s News Source previously. “And more importantly, it is fully expected that the Administration in its role as the executive branch will implement and enforce all validly passed ordinances by Assembly, the Municipality’s legislative branch.”

If amended, that section of the ordinance would instead read “Violation of this ordinance does not create grounds for residents to harass individuals who do not comply with it.”

Another proposed amendment would change the expiration date of the ordinance from Dec. 31 and move it up to no later than Oct. 31. It would also make the ordinance expire sooner than that if or when Anchorage “reached a point of sufficient medical capacity.”

Another of the amendments would clearly exempt any child under the age of 5 from wearing a mask, and another would change the language that states people would need to wear masks at crowded outdoor events to instead say “in communal spaces outside the home.”

A separate amendment would also expand exemptions for the mask requirement to “all athletic activities” while a person is actively engaged in that activity. The amendment notes the individual gyms or fitness centers could still require masks if they chose to.

Some assembly members have said the drawn out public hearing could be considered an effort to delay assembly debate and a vote on the ordinance.

If the ordinance were to pass, Bronson has the power to veto it as mayor. In that case, the assembly would need a supermajority of eight votes to override a veto.

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