When is it OK for Assembly to close meetings to public? An Alaska judge will decide - Must Read Alaska
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Wednesday, January 20, 2021
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When is it OK for Assembly to close meetings to public? An Alaska judge will decide

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A judge on Friday heard arguments for and against a preliminary injunction to stop the Anchorage Assembly from pursing actions taken during a several-week span when it closed its meetings to the public this summer.

Superior Court Judge Una Sonia Gandbhir heard from Alaskans for Open Meetings attorney Michael Corey, who argued that the Assembly, by shutting out members of the public, had broken the Alaska Open Meetings Act.

From Ruth Botstein, the municipal attorney defending the Assembly, the court heard a “we’re too big to fail” argument — that the actions taken during the violation of the Open Meetings Act were so consequential, so monumental that they simply cannot be undone.

In late July, the Assembly forbade the public from entering the Loussac Library’s Assembly Chambers. The barricading of the Assembly came after former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz used his emergency powers and placed a ban on public gatherings.

For all of August the public was prohibited from observing the Assembly, Planning Commission, or other quasi-judicial meetings. The only way taxpayers could participate was by watching the meetings through a grainy, government-controlled camera, and by calling in their testimony via telephone — if they could get through.

The Assembly conducted some extraordinary business during those closed meetings: It decided on expenditures for $156 million in CARES Act funds, including the purchase of four buildings for homeless and vagrant services. It passed an ordinance prohibiting the counseling of gay teens in a practice loosely referred to as “conversion therapy.” And it approved the hiring of a new municipal employee called an “equity officer,” to address systemic racism in the city, at the cost of over $120,000 a year.

[Read: Mayor seeks to hire equity officer]

During meetings leading up to meeting closure and the final decisions on how to spend CARES Act funds, the Assembly Chair Felix Rivera spoke on the record that the funds would have to remedy racial equity, or he would not vote for them.

The State of Alaska’s Open Meetings Act (AS 44.62. 310-. 312) requires that all meetings of a public entity’s governing body be open to the public. The act also says the meetings may be attended by the public via teleconferencing, but the attorney for Alaskans for Open Meetings said that teleconferencing was never meant to be a substitute for attendance in person.

The fact that the Assembly members themselves were inside the chambers during those meetings was proof that it was possible to have in-person meetings, said Frank McQueary, a member of the group that is suing the Assembly.

“They had meetings. They even brought in people who they wanted to hear from. They excluded the rest of the public and created their own echo chamber,” McQueary said.

Botstein argued that the open meetings group had taken too long to file their lawsuit and that there’s too much to undo now.

“That argument is yet another barrier to participation,” McQueary said. ” The public is crippled on the best day of the year because it’s at such a disadvantage financially and in terms of time, while the city has its lawyers lined up and ready to go.”

McQueary said that the public assumes the governing body of the Assembly has its best interests at heart, and simply isn’t ready at any given moment to finance a lawsuit against lawmakers.

His group, whose members include former Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, had to raise money and hire a legal team — all during a time when indoor gatherings were made illegal or impractical due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Alaskans for Open Meetings group itself has had to cancel some of its meetings due to lockdowns by the current acting mayor.

“This ‘Too big to fail’ argument is the Assembly admitting that what they have done is wrong, but is too costly to unravel. If that is given too much weight by the court, then it eviscerates any remedy in the Open Meetings statute,” McQueary said.

During the hearing, Corey explained to the court that the Municipality was trying to give the court all the reasons why it was OK for the Assembly to break the law.

It’s like telling a police officer all the reasons why was OK to drive 80 miles per hour in a school zone — the roads were dry, the car was in good shape, and there wasn’t anyone around.

Corey said it is not the intent of the law to say people can follow the law only when they decide it’s appropriate for them personally.

Judge Gandbhir didn’t give a sense on when she might rule on the matter. A ruling from her either way will almost certainly be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court by whichever side loses the argument.

The open meetings group wants Judge Gandbhir to at least stop the purchase of the buildings, which are controversial uses of CARES Act funds, until the matter of the Open Meetings group works its way through the court appeals.

The public’s involvement is critical, the group said on Saturday.

“We think ongoing public activity on this issue is very important,” said Craig Campbell, who once served on the Assembly. “I would ask people to get involved. Attending Assembly meetings is one way to show that we want the meetings open.”

Campbell then pointed out the hypocrisy of closing the meetings in August, when the coronavirus was not yet that widespread.

Today, the Assembly chamber is open again for limited public participation, and yet the incidence of positive COVID cases has never been higher in Alaska. That reopening of the Assembly meetings only came about because of intense public pressure, including weekly and often noisy demonstrations outside the Loussac Library, where the meetings are held.

Learn more about Alaskans for Open Meetings at this link.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Hypocrisy, thy name is leftist.
    .
    And that especially goes for you, Felix Rivera. My God, what a despicable excuse for a human being.

  • These protest people are doing nothing but alienating the majority of republican anchorage voters. A bunch of tin-foil hats and flags marches when we have 5 ICU beds left in Anchorage? Ted Stevens is rolling over in his grave at all these “Johnny Come-Lately Real Alaskans”.

    Don’t see any protests over at JBER do you? Oh that’s right. They’re all Libs. Keep telling yourself that.

    • JBER falls under a different set of rules and guidelines being a Federal Installation. There is no comparison. 5 ICU beds left? How many are COVID versus end of life. When you speak just numbers you’re spreading half truths just like you are referring to fellow Citizens. That is the problem with the lefts narratives providing half pictures to implement draconian measures.

  • When? Never.

    Will the AK Supremes allow it? Of course.

    You’re not being governed, Alaska. You’re being ruled. And more is on the way. You like the Assembly? Just wait until the legislature meets.

    • Rebellion is the only proper response to tyranny. And tyranny is exactly what we are facing here.
      .
      So, what form will that rebellion take? I am not sure, but I am sure that I am ready for it.

  • Cloak and dagger. They are using the “crisis” to cloak their power grabs. I’m disgusted. And anyone who is not disgusted by the complete surrender of rights to these despots, I cannot understand.
    I cannot determine whether a patriot should abandon this foolishness or stand and fight, the question occupies many of my thoughts throughout a day.
    I am angry. Angry at a Governor who purported to be a strong figure… I have not heard from him lately. Angry that the last 22 years of Alaskan residence has led me to believe that this is, indeed, the last frontier; the last stand for freedom. But alas, how do we differ from any other state in our independence? In our diversion from how other equally populated states are addressing this? We’ve been abandoned by our freedom-loving governance. We’ve lost our collective minds to the hype of national news and refused to address our own situation in relation to our circumstances.
    I have never been more ready to abandon my home, my livelihood, and seek shelter in a more freedom-loving state( who had thought before this that there was such a one?!). I have never been so heartbroken that the state I have invested in, endeavored to raise children in, and considered to be the shining light of freedom and autonomy has fallen.
    What makes you free, Alaska?! If not for the people who populate and prop up your economy? What makes you the Last Frontier?! What resemblance do you retain to the land of those whom value the “live and let live” society that I came to adore?
    You’ve let me down. And now, not only do I seek to be free of your most populous city but I also long to be free of the encumbrance of your entirety, for at every level of leadership I see a people devoid of strength, dignity, and morality.

    • AK Touche, I hear and feel your despair and disgust, because I share it.

      As I was driving around yesterday in Eagle River, I took note of all the mindless idiots who were wearing face diapers while driving alone, or while on the bike/foot path along the Glenn Highway. Truly, the majority of people, even here in Alaska, are gullible and ignorant children willing to be led, and all to eager to surrender their rights and freedoms for a manufactured and artificial crisis. I weep for our collective future.
      .
      Anyone who has ever wondered how and why full-fledged tyranny arrived in all those countries and places famous for it (which are too innumerable to mention), they need wonder no longer.

    • Hear, hear.

  • “Botstein argued that the open meetings group had taken too long to file their lawsuit and that there’s too much to undo now.” Taken too long? I’d like to see that statute of limitations, Botstein. What BS.

    And trust me, a judge isn’t the only person who can decide whether the public should be present. The public itself might decide to be present no matter what anyone says. >:( They’d best remember who they’re working for!

  • I am skeptical that this judge or any other judge will rule against the ongoing tyranny. The judge was selected by and a part of a system that is uniformly supportive.of the “progressive” forces that run Anchorage right now. These folks all believe the same things and support the same goals of vastly expanding government, expanding social programs and limiting individual liberty (except for criminals, of course). With apologies to Abraham Lincoln, none of these folks read a bible of any kind or seek the guidance of the Almighty, save for the obscenity of Karl Marx and assorted environmental whackos. No Alaska judge will have the courage to upset the established order. Absolute solidarity is required right now. The Left has taken gaslighting to a whole new level. It is often asked how the National Socialist Workers party could ascend to power in Germany in 1933. Watch carefully; this is how it can happen.

  • What’s the peaceful way to remove this Politburo from power?

    • Mass, coordinated action by people who are willing to be brave and take a shared public stand against this tyranny could work, but what exact form would that action take?
      I puzzle over this conundrum constantly lately.

  • If these control freak communists were so worried about germs inside the chambers they should have met outside in the parking lot. thin skinned bunch lunatics. People of Anchorage do not trust your destiny to that group you elected they are going to walk you right off a cliff.

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