After a late start for its meeting on Wednesday, the Anchorage Assembly was able to get through the Pledge of Allegiance, the land acknowledgement. Then it got hung up on the next item: Masks.
Chairwoman Suzanne LaFrance tried and eventually succeeded in passing an in-house rule for the Assembly Chambers that demanded all in the Chamber wear a face mask — public and Assembly members included.
Hardly anyone in the audience was complying and it soon became evident the executive branch would not forcibly remove people from the room, regardless of the Assembly’s wishes.
The issue turned into a standoff with the Mayor’s Office, as the rule-making majority tried to assert control over the face attire of people, and as the City Manager Amy Demboski held firm that she would enforce the law the Assembly passed last week, but not this additional rule, which she said didn’t have the legal standing of the original ordinance.
The dispute took over an hour to resolve. People stayed in line at the podium for the audience participation portion of the meeting, but were thwarted from taking part by the ongoing dispute over masks.
Finally, Assemblyman Chris Constant said that if the city manager would not throw unmasked people out of the Assembly Chambers, then the Assembly should simply adjourn or continue the meeting to Thursday.
Quickly, the group passed the mask rule and gaveled out, over the objections of Assembly members Jamie Allard, Crystal Kennedy and John Weddleton. The meeting will start over again on Thursday at 5 pm.
1:30 pm, a time when most members of the public cannot attend.
Kennedy called the whole thing a childish power struggle between members of the Assembly and the Administration. Although she didn’t name them, she was referring to the seven majority members who were insisting on mask compliance, with no exceptions made, a complete dismissal of the law they had just passed last week.
Removing her own mask for a moment, Kennedy said on the record that the paper masks don’t do anything to prevent the spread of the virus and the disagreement over enforcement was embarrassing for the whole city.
Constant, however, said that people who attended the meetings in recent weeks are now dying of Covid and it is the Assembly’s job to set the place, time, and manner of the meetings. He said the Bronson Administration was overstepping the separation of powers by not allowing the Assembly to set more strict rules for its meetings than what was in the mask ordinance it passed last week.
Earlier in the Wednesday meeting, there were more than a dozen people standing outside the Chambers trying to gain entry. They were being blocked by security guards because they didn’t have masks on. City Manager Amy Demboski intervened and said anyone could come into the Chambers without a mask if they declared an exemption.
That infuriated Assemblyman Constant, who in a fit of pique called it “childish.”
A member of the audience soon yelled at Constant, accusing him of being childish for making the “Loser” sign at her. He yelled back. Others jeered and called the majority of the Assembly “cowards” for gaveling out.
A member of the public who sat through the meeting explained, “In other words, if the Assembly says everyone must wear a clown suit to the Assembly Chambers, the Assembly believes it has the right to enforce that.”
It was a separation of powers issue, with Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar repeatedly trying to get Demboski to say she would not enforce the mask ordinance. Demboski would not bite, and only replied that she would enforce the law. She said the law clearly allows for exemptions and it’s not proper to ask people to declare or explain their specific exemptions because those are medical or mental disabilities.
Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel, who just won a recall election by a wide margin, said there would be no exceptions to the mask ordinance — people can attend the meetings by phone or watch on YouTube if they can’t wear a mask or a face shield to the meeting.
Assemblywoman Allard pointed out that the whole thing was a set up to try to recall the mayor. She was warned by the chair for impugning the motives of others.
Assemblywoman Kennedy had, perhaps, the insight of the night: “I cannot believe how juvenile an action this is. I understand there is a power struggle going on. Everybody gets it. The more we keep doing this, the more vindictive things get, the more vengeful things get … At some point this has got to stop.”
And eventually it did stop. The Assembly returns Thursday auto continue the meeting, giving the majority on the Assembly time to figure out how to enforce a policy that most of the public was openly defying.
Left undone on the agenda were numerous important items, not the least of which is the first public hearing for the budget for next year.