By CRAIG E. CAMPBELL
Over the past year I had the pleasure of writing opinion pieces for Must Read Alaska, expressing a strong conservative viewpoint on government. Since joining the Bronson Administration, I have refrained from engaging in opinion writing, to avoid complicating any relationship between Mayor Bronson and the Anchorage Assembly.
Today I am making an exception, to provide some historical perspective on a brewing dispute between the Assembly and Administration over the separation of powers.
During the Sept. 14 Assembly meeting there was disagreement concerning the Assembly and the Administration seating configuration.
The Assembly, seeking to provide more spacing between Assembly members, wanted to use the five seats in the Assembly chambers historically assigned to the Administration.
The Administration objected and advised the Assembly that the Administration would retain use of the five traditional seats. The Administration suggested the Assembly could use the five seats located below and in front of the Administrations seats if they wanted to provide greater separation between Assembly members. The debate got a wee bit heated; I will admit.
After the debate concluded, both the Assembly and Administration remained in their traditionally designated seats. However, just prior to adjournment that evening, Vice Chair Chris Constant laid on the table an unnumbered ordinance to amend the municipal code regarding management authority over meeting premises and other municipal property used by the Assembly, Boards, or Commissions and set it for public hearing at the Sept. 28 Assembly meeting.
His proposal is the most aggressive affront to the traditional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches that has ever been proposed by either body since the 1975 unification of the Anchorage Borough and the City of Anchorage.
What the Assembly proposes is to transfer management authority for operations of any space within the municipality used by the Assembly, or any board or commission, over to the Assembly. Let me quote: “Notwithstanding any other section of this code, the (Assembly) presiding officer shall have management authority over the premises.”
Management authority is defined as “control over the physical and logistical arrangements of the premises for a meeting, including furnishings, equipment, technology, security, seating assignments, accessibility accommodations, signage, decor, and other personal property and operational matters at the premises.”
Premises is defined as “the Assembly Chambers or other room in which the meeting is held, and adjacent areas and rooms reasonable and necessary for the logistical purposes, staff support, security, executive session, recess, public and press access, and other ancillary needs related to the meeting.”
In the preamble to the code change, the sponsor states “it has been a long standing practice and custom in the Municipality of Anchorage that the Assembly Chair has the authority to direct the setting of the Assembly Chambers at the Z.J. Loussac Library for regular and special Assembly meetings.” The author concludes by stating that the ordinance change is intended to “clarify this long history, custom, and practice.”
Not to create friction between the executive and legislative bodies, but rather to provide an insider’s perspective on the stark differences between how the executive and legislative branches view their roles in public service, I would suggest the author has not accurately portrayed the historical relationship between the bodies. Let me explain.
I had the pleasure of serving on the Anchorage Assembly for nearly 10 years, which included the second term of Mayor Tony Knowles, both terms of Mayor Tom Fink, and the first term of Mayor Rick Mystrom. I recall many heated debates and strong-willed disagreements; however, in all those times both sides respected the separation of powers and protocols for public discourse during Assembly meetings.
Historically, the Assembly always had control over the seating arrangement of the 11 Assembly members across the main dais in the front of the chambers. It was always understood that the Assembly chair controlled the agenda, the schedule, and the public process during any regular or special meeting. This was also honored for board and commission meetings. However, it has always been accepted protocol that the Administration retained control over the seating arrangement of the five seats at the far end of the dais.
The primary reason for Administration control over this seating arrangement concerned the safety of the mayor and senior staff. The wall on upper level of the dais, in front of both the Assembly and Administration seats, was reinforced with a Kevlar barrier in 2015 to protect Assembly members, the mayor, and senior staff from potential injury should there ever be a violent incident during an Assembly meeting.
Additionally, the Administration’s seats are located close to an external exit, by which the mayor and staff could expeditiously vacate the building without having to be exposed to a hazardous situation.
The effort of the Assembly chair on Sept. 14 to use the Administration seats for Assembly members and relegate the Administration to the unprotected, lower level seats would expose the mayor and senior staff to potential safety and security risks. This was categorically unacceptable, as explained by the municipal manager at the meeting that evening.
To my recollection, there has never been an effort by any Assembly Chair to involuntarily relocate the Administration. For Assembly member Constant to suggest the municipal code must be changed because the Administration exerted their historical practice of sitting on the upper level of the Assembly dais, behind a protected barrier, is a stretch.
To be more specific, there was no challenge to Assembly authority by the Administration in maintaining the long-standing practice of sitting in their traditional seats, as there were other options for providing increased separation for Assembly members that evening.
In closing, one can only speculate that the motive for this ordinance change is not actually about Assembly chamber seating.
In July, Chair LaFrance and Vice Chair Constant introduced AO 2021-66, which was intended to create a position within the Assembly staff that would have unfettered access to the executive branch, breaching the separation of powers and undermining the traditional roles of local government.
AO 2021-66 would have established unrestricted access to all activities of municipal government and its departments, all municipal personnel, buildings, rooms, meetings, files, records, policies, plans, and records pertaining to any financial expenditures by municipal fund injecting the Assembly directly into the executive branch deliberative process and legal oversight of municipal operations.
It certainly appears this new proposal is another attempt to blur the separation between the executive and legislative branches and gain more control of executive functions by the Assembly.
I am pleased the Assembly recognized the extreme overreach presented in AO 2021-66 and amended out most of the tasks that would have created a separation of powers crisis.
Likewise, I encourage the Assembly to step back from this newly introduced ordinance that would usurp executive responsibilities as outlined in both the Anchorage Charter and Code, spurred by a tiff over seating. There is no reason to break the long-standing Assembly chambers seating arrangements practice, unless of course one were really only interested in creating a divisive environment. This unnumbered ordinance should be tabled.
Craig Campbell is policy director for Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson.