Anchorage Assembly adjourns meeting early as clashes over separation of powers continue

The meeting has been continued to Thursday evening
Anchorage City Hall.
Anchorage City Hall.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Oct. 27, 2021 at 10:01 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Wednesday’s Anchorage Assembly meeting, which was set to deal with a wide range of topics including confirming mayoral appointments and a public hearing on the city budget, was adjourned early after an ongoing struggle between members of the assembly and the city administration for control over the chambers came to a head.

At the start of the meeting, Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance moved to update the city’s COVID-19 mitigation plan for the assembly chambers in the Loussac Library. This mitigation plan had already been established by a resolution, along with a mechanism for periodically updating it. What LaFrance moved to do Wednesday night was update the mitigation plan with additional language regarding mask wearing and capacity limits.

The move sparked debate between members of the assembly and members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration. Bronson did not attend Wednesday’s meeting in person — a spokesperson said earlier this week Bronson is following quarantine protocols after having been identified as a close contact with the executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, who tested positive for COVID-19.

Some members of the assembly and administration have been clashing over the last several weeks when it comes to control over the assembly chambers and separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. At a public hearing earlier this month for a mask ordinance the assembly had previously been considering, Municipal Manager Amy Demboski asked the contracted security service to leave the assembly chambers. Security remained inside the library building and the Wilda Marston Theatre used for overflow seating, but only members of the Anchorage Police Department were left in the chambers themselves.

Also at that meeting, Director of Economic and Community Development Adam Trombley walked up to the public speaking podium and removed the plexiglass barrier that was there as part of the assembly’s mitigation plan for the chambers.

LaFrance and Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant have since proposed an ordinance that deals with management authority over the assembly chambers.

The measure is “intended to clarify a long history, custom, and practice of the Municipality” that the assembly chair “has the authority to direct the setting” of the chambers, according to the ordinance text.

The ordinance would add new language that says “the presiding officer of a meeting shall have management authority over the premises,” meaning the chambers or other room in which an assembly or committee meeting is being held. That ordinance is scheduled to have a public hearing on Dec. 7.

The assembly also recently voted to enter a contract of up to $50,000 with the firm Birch Horton Bittner and Cherot for legal counsel on the separation of power issues between the assembly and administration.

On Wednesday night, questions about control over what happens inside assembly chambers were raised again. The updates LaFrance sought to make to the assembly’s mitigation plan included that face coverings must be worn at all times in the chambers and in the Wilda Marston Theatre during meetings, and that there will be a capacity limit of 125 people inside the chambers and 150 people inside the Wilda Marston Theatre.

The updates include an exemption that a face shield can be worn by those who can’t tolerate wearing masks due to mental or physical disabilities.

The assembly did ultimately approve those changes in an 8-3 vote, with assembly members Jamie Allard, John Weddleton and Crystal Kennedy voting no. Shortly after the changes to the mitigation plan passed, Constant called for the mitigation plan to be enforced.

“Which I believe would be handing out masks to the individuals not wearing masks, and then we can get to asking those who are unwilling to comply to leave, and that’s the question I would ask you to direct to the municipal manager,” he said.

Demboski said it felt “like a trap that the assembly is setting to catch the administration.”

“The administration recognizes (emergency ordinance) 2021-3 as the assembly passed it,” Demboski said. “And we are trying our best to apply the law.”

Earlier in the meeting, Demboski had stated the administration recognized the city’s emergency mask ordinance — which includes several exemptions to wearing a mask — as having precedence over the assembly’s mitigation plan for the chambers.

LaFrance had noted that the mitigation plan is slightly more restrictive than the emergency order, and Allard and Kennedy both asked questions about how that could be allowed and whether the city would be allowed to enforce the mitigation plan.

Assembly Counsel Dean Gates said it was his opinion that, similar to businesses that have management authority over their own premises, the assembly has authority over its meeting premises in the library.

“We can be a little more restrictive than (the emergency ordinance).” he said. “We can’t be less restrictive, that would be in violation. This is a little more restrictive, nothing in conflict.”

Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt provided a different legal perspective.

“The Department of Law’s position on this is that provisions of (the emergency ordinance) are current law and take precedence over an assembly mitigation plan, pending a full public hearing on the management authority ordinance,” he said.

Bergt cited the city’s charter, which states that “executive and administrative power of Anchorage is vested in the mayor.”

“Additionally, state statutes in Title 29 provide that the executive power of a municipality is vested in a mayor who, among other duties, exercises custody over all real and personal property of the municipality, except the school district,” Bergt said in a follow up email.

The custody over property in a municipality falls under the powers and duties of a manager in state statute, but state law also says that when a municipality does not have a manager plan of government — or, as in Anchorage’s case, has a strong mayor form of government — the mayor has the same powers and duties as a manager.

When asked about enforcement of the updated mitigation plan, Demboski reiterated that the administration would operate under the parameters of the emergency ordinance.

“The administration recognizes the emergency ordinance, recognizes the concepts within it, and the exceptions within it,” Demboski said in response to Constant’s call for enforcing the updated mitigation plan. “We will recognize the exemptions that this body passed in their emergency ordinance.”

Constant then immediately moved to adjourn the meeting, saying that the administration “is not willing to implement the COVID mitigation plan and has restricted us from being able to do so.”

LaFrance said that the meeting should be continued to Thursday evening to deal with the number of items on the agenda. Constant later changed his motion to be one that continued the meeting.

“I think adjourning tonight, resuming tomorrow helps with the notice issues that Mr. Weddleton raised,” said Assembly member Forrest Dunbar. “And by tomorrow night there’ll be a much clearer understanding of what the requirements are in these chambers to comply with the COVID mitigation plan, or use one of the reasonable accommodations such as telephone testimony.”

Kennedy said she feels the time spent on the COVID-19 mitigation plan, and the greater power struggle between the assembly and administration, is starting to interfere with the regular business the assembly takes care of.

“The problem is, now we are actually ... absolutely letting this interfere with regular government functions,” Kennedy said. “We’ve spent over an hour talking about whether or not the few people in this room that don’t have a mask on should be asked to leave.”

“With regard to whether these are simply power plays between the branches of government, this has been a significant departure from the administrations in the past that have honored and recognized the chair’s authority to set the rules for the chamber,” said Assembly member Meg Zaletel. “And allow the assembly to conduct its business in the place, time and manner it deems appropriate.”

Members of the assembly eventually voted 6-5 to continue the meeting to Thursday. Dunbar, Weddleton, Allard, Kennedy and LaFrance cast the five no votes.

On the agenda for the meeting that’s now continued to Thursday are several matters, including:

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