The sixth day of public testimony on a proposed mask ordinance in Anchorage went late Thursday night, with a large, sometimes unruly, crowd.
While much of the testimony sounded familiar to prior days, this meeting was marked by a stark conflict between Mayor Dave Bronson and the Assembly leadership. Testimony will not continue Friday, however. Two members of the mayor’s senior staff tested positive for COVID-19 and had been in close contact with all seven members of the Assembly who attended the meeting in-person.
Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early was at spoke with Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove about it.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Casey Grove: Walk us through what happened at the Assembly chambers last night.
WE: Well, no one was arrested. There were no noticeable Stars of David or homophobic remarks. But it was probably the rowdiest day of testimony so far. One big change was that Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance ruled that from now until the end of public testimony on the ordinance, Assembly members could not ask any more questions of people testifying.
So every Assembly member has been allowed to ask clarifying questions of people who testify. However, LaFrance said, after five days of testimony, the Assembly wasn’t likely to hear any new position for or against the mandate, and some members had been using the questions to extend certain testimony and engage in debate, which isn’t really the point. She called it dilatory — which is a fancy word for something intended to cause a delay. It seemed to be pointed at member Jamie Allard from Eagle River, who is strongly opposed to the mandate. I haven’t been keeping an exact tally, but she’s asked considerably more questions than the rest of the body during this process. The crowd was very vocal in both their support of Allard and their opposition to this ruling, and that energy was maintained the whole meeting.
CG: So, it seems clear that Bronson, Allard and their allies opposed to the mandate want to drag this process out endlessly. What are they doing to accomplish that?
WE: That’s very clear. There’s been a large social media coordinated effort among mandate opponents to delay any movement. It’s been informally referred to as the “People’s Filibuster.” I think they weren’t as obvious about it in other meetings, but last night saw people coming out in droves. A group even held a pizza party for some kids who were brought in to testify. Here’s Christine Hill in her public testimony. She’s been one of the more vocal opponents of the mandate from the public.
“Let’s push this back until April and the re-election. Push it back,” said Hill. “As long as we have testimony, they can’t vote.”
WE: So as you can hear, the crowd was largely in sync with that notion. The Assembly leadership also had a tough time keeping the meeting from getting out of hand. At one point, Adam Trombley — he’s the mayor’s Director of the Office of Economic and Community Development — came over to the plexiglass that was between the Assembly and the testimony podium and just walked away with it. The mayor’s administration also dismissed the security officers in the room, which definitely limited LaFrance’s ability to maintain order. Normally, she would have more ability to limit disruptions, but without the security, you ended up with loud, persistent interruptions.
CG: Aside from LaFrance, how were other Assembly members responding to the mayor and his tactics?
WE: Member Forrest Dunbar confronted Municipal Manager Amy Demboski about removing the security officers, and seemed unsatisfied with Demboski’s justification. She said Anchorage Police were taking over the security for the meeting as a safety precaution, although officers and the police chief had already been there for the whole meeting.
Member Chris Constant, who was telephonic, took it a step further.
“I believe the municipal manager attempted to cut off the video stream tonight, that the mayor has forced security to leave the building in an attempt to create a more hostile environment. I take that back, I shouldn’t speak to motive,” he said.
So Constant did apologize. Members aren’t supposed to speak to the motives of other members or the mayor. But the tone of the Assembly ranged from concern that the mayor was overriding the powers of the Assembly to a genuine concern for their safety.
CG: We talked about this a bit earlier in the week but why can’t the Assembly end debate on this? And are Assembly members talking about ways around that rule?
WE: Well once the Assembly opens public testimony, they can’t end it until everyone has a chance to speak. There are some caveats to this, like if a motion is extremely time sensitive and the Assembly has to make a decision quickly. And while some would argue the high rates of hospitalizations and COVID-19 cases is creating a time sensitive situation. Tonight’s meeting is canceled, like you said before. Assembly officials say they’re looking at potentially postponing next Tuesday’s regular meeting in order to give everyone enough time to test and quarantine. But it doesn’t look like they’ll wrap up public testimony as long as people are in line whenever they meet again.
CG: We’ll be sure to keep people updated on when the next meeting is. Wesley, thank you for joining us.