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‘It’s just embarrassing’: Longest serving assembly member looks at future of public debates over masks

Members of the Anchorage Assembly hear testimony from residents on a proposed ordinance that...
Members of the Anchorage Assembly hear testimony from residents on a proposed ordinance that would require masks during a Monday, Oct. 4, 2021 public hearing in the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 4:03 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Dick Traini has witnessed the history of Anchorage from the front row. He was elected as chair of the Anchorage Assembly five times, which is a post he’s held over a career that’s spanned nearly two decades. Traini held the position of assembly chair for about 10 years.

“Nineteen years, six months, a few odd days,” Traini said about his terms on the assembly.

From his living room, retired and at home on the couch, he’s watched the recent debate about a proposed mask requirement for Anchorage unfold over the past few days. If passed, the ordinance would require mask wearing within the municipality during high transmission rates of COVID-19. The meetings have been marked by large crowds and arrests, and some people wore the Star of David to protest wearing a mask. At one point a man had concealed gun held in the waste band of his jeans. There have also been clashes between the assembly and Bronson’s administration when it comes to overseeing meetings in the assembly chambers.

“It’s a gaggle. It’s just embarrassing. I’m sorry. You know people should come and testify on the issue, but laying down and doing push-ups, laying down ... sleeping on the floor ... that’s ridiculous,” Traini said. “You expect a certain level of conduct from the assembly members and from the public and once that’s breached it’s hard to put the horse back in the stable.”

During his career, Traini had overseen intense public debates: alcohol taxes, outsourcing of city jobs and the equal rights ordinance, which made it illegal to discriminate over sexual orientation or gender identity.

It passed and Traini signed it in September 2015 after the issue was vetoed by then-Mayor Dan Sullivan back in 2009.

The 2009 ordinance was debated all summer long, although Traini wasn’t on the assembly that year. Hundreds of people eventually testified about the issue during six hearings that lasted over several hours. Stories written by Alaska’s News Source report more than 600 people testified over that summer.

The protests were loud and raucous; people waved signs wearing red shirts claiming the ordinance created “special rights.” A similar, although less intense, scene played out in 2015 when it came up again.

Traini said he’s not sure whether those debates were as unruly as the current one playing out in assembly chambers over the proposed mask requirement.

“The times and conditions of people change,” Traini said. “I know America is really — it’s also a cross roads right now. We don’t take other people’s concerns into account anymore.”

He does believe the assembly should continue to allow public testimony, but there needs to be a better working relationship between the assembly and the mayor.

On Tuesday afternoon, many assembly members were prepping for Tuesday night’s regularly scheduled assembly meeting. The official public hearing for the proposed mask ordinance is set to begin again at 6 p.m. on Wednesday. However, it’s possible the assembly could introduce an emergency ordinance for a mask requirement, similar to the ordinance being discussed now, as a laid-on-the-table item during Tuesday’s meeting. Emergency ordinances do not require public testimony, but need nine votes to pass.

Traini says he believes the assembly will seek to introduce an emergency ordinance with regard to masks. If that were to happen, he believes the public would try to gather enough signatures for a referendum on the emergency ordinance.

“I think the public that are opposed to it will go ahead and get signatures and submit that to the clerk,” Traini said.

Asked how long the public will continue to testify, Vice Chair Christopher Constant said “it’s hard to say,” but the COVID-19 numbers don’t look good and he’s worried about people getting sick while being packed together in the assembly chambers.

“I believe, yes, this is an unprecedented experience in the municipality’s history,” he said.

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