Anchorage Assembly discussion reveals deep division after brutal year of pandemic politics

two assembly members at the Anchorage assembly meeting
Assembly chair Felix Rivera and Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson at the Anchorage Assembly meeting Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, when Chief of Staff Jason Bockenstedt announced Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s resignation. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

After an explosive disagreement during a meeting last week, the Anchorage Assembly held a routine reorganization vote Tuesday to elect an acting chair. Despite opposition from some members, Midtown Assembly member Felix Rivera was re-elected to the position.

For months, Assembly meetings have become increasingly divisive and confrontational as members have disagreed over policy and residents have lashed out and disrupted proceedings over pandemic restrictions. 

Last week, the tension came to a head when Eagle River/Chugiak Assembly member Jamie Allard shouted at Assembly Chair Felix Rivera while he was reading a statement denouncing comments she had made suggesting migrants from Mexico were bringing COVID-19 to Texas.

At this week’s meeting, Assembly members responded in turn to the lapse in decorum. Fellow Eagle River/Chugiak member Crystal Kennedy said while she did not excuse Allard’s outburst, she felt Rivera was wrong to address the comments publicly.

“It was out of line, so beyond proper protocol. And just the tenor of the remarks aimed at Ms. Allard, to me, to witness personally, was rather intolerable,” she said. “I’m still shaking every time I’m forced to think about it.”

Several other Assembly members noted the group’s working relationship seems to have deteriorated over the last year, at least in part due to the stress of governing through a pandemic. Assembly member Meg Zalatel said Allard, who joined the body last spring and has had other outbursts in the past, was also to blame.

“Personal attacks and a lack of respect for what feels like the values of this office and the community by one member have permeated the business of this body,” Zalatel said. “They have been done in a manner that doesn’t make work on this body feel collegial or conducive to trying to find creative solutions to the problems the municipality is facing.”

Assembly members Kameron Perez-Verdia and Suzanne LaFrance also noted that outbursts could be limited if members followed the procedural guidelines for Assembly meetings, known as Robert’s Rules.

Allard declined to comment at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Zalatel and others reiterated their support for Rivera as chair, arguing he has provided steady leadership. Kennedy supported a change in the chairmanship, saying the Assembly needs time to cool off and rebuild trust.

Ultimately, Allard nominated John Weddleton to replace Rivera as chair. In a confidential vote, Rivera retained acting chairmanship. By unanimous consent, Weddleton remains acting vice-chair.

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