Assembly apologizes to itself

At issue: Improper debate and offensive language

After months of biting accusations, name calling and cross talk, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly last week apologized to itself for the lack of required debate decorum during public meetings.

 

The apologies came during a Meeting of the Whole, prior to last Tuesday’s regular meeting, and with little public attendance. Passed around with apologies were copies of Mason’s Legislative Manual Chapter 13 — eight pages about maintaining decorum during debate.

What did not come from the gathering of borough leadership was a direct apology to the public, some of whom were direct targets of the assembly’s verbal ire dished out along with the contentious debate during deliberations on the recently passed anadromous streams ordinance.

Assembly president Linda Murphy said that debate grew contentious, things got lax and bad habits developed.

“I think I am as guilty as any member,” she said.

Not all members of the assembly overstepped decorum. And, not all that did have yet apologized publicly.

The communication issues began to build up in June and then grew again in July. Some members made improper remarks, others called each other names and some made faces.

District 1 Assemblyman Kelly Wolf, who opposed the passage of the salmon stream ordinance as an overreaching land-grab, said that some on the assembly were acting like “Nazis.”

Wolf, a former state legislator, said that during his time on the assembly he’s also been targeted, called names, been accused of being unethical and operating with conflict — all the kinds of talk that he said did not occur in Juneau at the state government level.

“Yes, I’ve taken offense to that,” Wolf said, without acknowledging his own shortcomings.

Murphy said that the negative issues circling on-the-record assembly debate were not all verbal; some on the assembly roll their eyes when members or the public giving testimony speak.

“I’m a really emotional person,” Murphy said, admitting that it shows on her face. “We want people to feel comfortable.”

According to Mason’s Legislative Manual, “disorderly words” thrown about by members can be objected too by any member and can be “taken down.” A vote on the offensiveness is to follow and if the overall body agrees that those words are indeed offensive they should enter the official record via the meeting minutes.

“I’ve never been directed to take anything down,” Kenai Borough Clerk Joni Blankenship said this week. She’s been at the borough for 14 years. Taking action based on the legislative manual would come from Murphy, she said.

Last week’s Meeting of the Whole was called in response to the July 2 meeting, the night the streams ordinance won the vote to regulate a 50-foot buffer along the shoreline of salmon bearing streams, public or private.

That night Murphy called out fellow assembly member Charlie Pierce and Wolf during the contentious anadromous streams debate.

Pierce on several occasions hurled insults at fellow assembly members within his on-the-record commentary, including a wish that all who voted for the salmon ordinance never be elected to public office again.

“Debate the issue not the names,” Pierce said.

“I shouldn’t have used their names,” Murphy said about her public admonishment for their behavior, which she said somewhat mirrors the general lack of “civil discourse” in society.

“I don’t want the assembly to be that way,” she said.

District 8 Assemblyman Bill Smith offered a straightforward apology for his role. “I apologize for using Pierce’s name,” he said.

District 2 Assemblyman Hal Smalley smoothed the grievances over and encouraged the assembly make its amends and avoid the degraded debate in the future.

“We each suffer the failure of being human,” Smalley said.

Smalley was on several occasions, since May, mocking and dismissive of public testimony and concerns. He offered no apology last week.

Regular assembly meeting attendee Michele Hartline spoke, during last week’s regular meeting, about the lack of decorum among the assembly. Murphy disparaged her to a community member she said before calling for the assembly president’s resignation.

“She has apologized, but this apology is not sufficient,” Hartline said, before storming out of the meeting.

The salmon issue was undoubtedly emotion-filled and is indicative of the polarized nature in contemporary American society wherein some feel that government is the cause of all problems, Murphy said.

“Government looks different to some of us,” she said. “Government can’t fix all (problems), but it’s not the cause of all problems either.”

Between the July meeting and August meetings, Murphy and Wolf decided to take action. They considered holding a closed-door session to work through the issues away from the public that watched them violate the accepted norms of behavior.

According to Murphy, the borough attorney said the assembly could have legally gone behind closed doors with the issues and apologies and not violated the state open meetings act, but there was no real reason to not work through the apologies in public.

“Behind closed doors, people would have wondered what we were up too,” Murphy said.

 

Reach Greg Skinner at greg.skinner@peninsulaclarion.com.

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