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Community Perspective

On the Borough Assembly, we failed the public

Is belligerent bullying and obstruction what we want from our elected officials now? Not me. I expect more from my fellow Borough Assembly members than cheap armchair entertainment when doing the people’s business.

Unfortunately, the Borough Assembly meeting ended abruptly last Thursday when time ran out to take action on Ordinance 2020-24, which simply required apprenticeship utilization on certain public projects. Four members dismissed the opportunity to postpone the ordinance in order to reconsider a substitute at the next meeting — an option that would allow for changes to be introduced, debated and voted on in accordance with the rules. These members intended, as evidenced by their own debate, to “kill” an ordinance that was used as political fodder on an issue misinterpreted and misconstrued by the opposition.

My experiences in rule-making prepared me well for the vibrant, spirited debate we are guaranteed as Americans, and I envisioned at least an informed dialogue if not a respectful one among elected adults at the local assembly level. After this meeting, I was woefully surprised, as I expect is the thinking public.

When the ordinance was not postponed, members began to make amendments on the floor. As they were introduced and discussed, the opposition grew agitated and belligerent against other members and the chair and began to obstruct the meeting. Such antics indicate not savvy, but little more than juvenile theatrics. I had higher hopes for my colleagues when I ran for office, and I thought their voters did too.

An incident like this has been threatening to rear its head during our Borough Assembly meetings, and last Thursday it became downright embarrassing. Virtual meetings have emboldened this lack of decorum from some members of the body who act out when they do not get their way. They intentionally derail and abuse the rules set up to conduct the people’s business efficiently and transparently. Members mostly attend these meetings without turning on their video, so body language and context is lost. It’s disappointing and unacceptable.

While the general public may participate in forums and may devolve to release frustrations, and even bully, we rightly expect more from our elected officials, and when the institution and process is obstructed, so are the rights of the people.

I am the main sponsor of Ordinance 2020-24. It allows for apprenticeship utilization on public projects — a standard I believe, and presented facts to prove, will be a positive economic driver for our community to sustain jobs and standardization of services. After hearing from the public, this misunderstood issue became charged from many in our community. I expected that. However, the opposition lacked substantive arguments to defend opinions that were grossly misconstrued and simply inaccurate.

What I did not expect was the complete lack of respect exhibited to the chair and other members of the body. Some members debated during roll call, spoke out of turn or without being acknowledged by the chair, used questions to testifiers as a way to debate, called points of order out of order, and errantly challenged the ruling of the chair. Appropriate behavior this was not, but these members can do better with some basic understanding of parliamentary procedures.

Instead, this bad behavior erodes public trust and demonstrates a lack of respect for not only the accepted rules that govern assembly procedures but also the Fairbanks voters themselves, who elected us to serve. When even one member acts with such disregard to the body and the process, it not only makes them look bad but also the entire assembly, the borough, and the community.

We can stop this now, or we can stand by while obstructionist behavior continues to degrade our representative democracy. It will only escalate from here unless we acknowledge our own behaviors as unprofessional and disrespectful of the system and the people we are elected to work for.

As assembly members, we have taken an oath of office to do the people’s work, uphold the Constitution, and abide by rules of decorum. Last Thursday, we failed.

I am a believer in new beginnings. I hope that my colleagues will step up to prepare adequately before meetings, obtain the skills necessary to perform their duties, and promote proper adherence to process and public service moving forward. If not, I expect conscientious voters to rectify this blight at the ballot box.

Mindy O’Neall is deputy presiding officer of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly. She was elected to Seat C in 2019.

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