To loud jeering from the public in a packed room at the Loussac Library, Anchorage Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance decided that Assemblywoman Jamie Allard and Mayor Dave Bronson ask too many questions of testifiers against the proposed mask ordinance.
From now on, Allard and Bronson (and all other members of the body) will are banned from asking questions because their questions, she has ruled, are merely a delay tactic.
That is, Allard and Bronson were trying to delay the Assembly from moving forward to approve a compulsory mask ordinance that is desired by the majority of the leftist Assembly, but not desired by many in the audience.
“A pattern of dilatory questions has been established,” LaFrance said.
People have lined up for the sixth night to continue to tell the Assembly just how compulsory masks affect them, their businesses, their lives, and the quality of life in Anchorage.
Regarding the five days of testimony heard already, nearly all of it against the proposed ordinance, “at this point we are not likely to hear new facets” of the proposed ordinance, LaFrance said.
Therefore, since the Assembly wasn’t likely to hear anything new, she said she would appreciate members of the public moving along to suggest amendments to the ordinance, rather than just rehashing the same points others had made.
LaFrance said that “folks who testify are asked to remain on topic.” But she also said, “it is not my intent to restrict the content. To be most effective, if you actually suggest amendments and address ways in which you’d like to see this changed or not, that can be helpful.”
“For the remainder of the public hearing on AO 2021-91, questions from the members of the body or the mayor will not be entertained,” LaFrance said.
Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy moved to override the ruling, which was clearly targeted at muzzling the mayor and Allard.
“I do have significant legal concerns about whether or not you can keep the members of from engaging with the public during their testimony,” Kennedy said.
Assemblywoman Allard said the chair’s ruling is setting a precedent that would prohibit elected officials from engaging with the public.
But LaFrance said her ruling was specific to this particular ordinance.
Municipal Manager Amy Demboski, speaking for the Administration, said there are multiple Supreme Court opinions on freedom of speech, and “it is clear that stifling the free speech of elected officials has a much higher bar. I believe the actions you are engaging in are illegal. Just because you don’t like members asking questions doesn’t mean you can stop it. If this motion goes forward, I anticipate legal action on behalf of the administration.”
Assemblymen Chris Constant and Felix Rivera argued that if Roberts Rules of Order don’t specifically say that Assembly members can ask questions, then the Assembly chair can forbid them.
Amy Demboski argued “rules protecting the basic right of the individual member cannot be suspended.”
She said,”you cannot stifle a dissenting member just because you don’t like the questions they’re asking.”
Constant, who was leaving town for vacation on Thursday night, appeared by phone, while Felix Rivera, who has been missing for several meetings, attended in person. Missing from the room was Meg Zaletel and Pete Petersen, the makers of the ordinance.
Dean Gates, the Assembly’s attorney who reports to LaFrance, said he had reviewed her ruling before the meeting and that she was within her rights to stop testimony since testimony is in its unprecedented sixth day.
If the ruling to squelch speech was proposed last week at the beginning of the hearing, he said he would not have agreed with this ruling, but since the public testimony has gone on so long, he now agrees that Allard and Bronson can be muzzled by the chair.
He also said that Demboski is not an attorney and so she should not be listened to when it comes to the constitutional questions she raised.
“I do believe this ruling will be upheld in the court of law,” he said.
Allard noted that in 2020, the chair allowed people to lie down in front of the dais and roll around on the floor during the meeting, but because it fit the political agenda of the liberal majority, it was allowed, even though it was distracting.
Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar argued against applying the First Amendment to members of the Assembly, and then argued that because people in the room kept clapping, and it seems impossible to stop them, the ruling is appropriate.
The ruling passed 8-3, and the crowd booed, leading LaFrance to point out a member of the crowd to security for removal, should that citizen make another disruption.
The effort to squelch questioning took a full hour of the Assembly’s time that had been set aside for public testimony. A few minutes into testimony, Adam Trombley, who works for the Administration as the director of economic and community development, walked to the public’s podium and removed the sneeze guard Plexiglas barrier, sending the crowd into wild cheering.
He walked off with the podium as LaFrance became confused, without her “Sergeant of Arms” Chris Constant next to her to tell her what to do. So she called a recess and the official camera went dead.
After the break, LaFrance announced that the mayor had also dismissed the security guards from the room so they would not be able to remove people that she singled out. She said this is a separation of powers issue but that she would proceed with the meeting.