A referendum to repeal an ordinance passed by the Kodiak Borough Assembly earlier this month will not make it on the October municipal election ballot.
A letter to the repeal’s backers from Borough Clerk Nova Javier said the petition application was rejected by the borough’s attorney because needed paperwork was not provided and the ordinance itself isn’t actually subject to referendum.
The ordinance in question deals with debate decorum – how people, be it members of the community or assembly members, conduct themselves during meetings, including the public comment portion. The language included in the ordinance, which was passed on July 3, was taken directly from Robert’s Rules of Order – the standard for governing proceedings used by the borough assembly, and many other groups and organizations, for decades.
“All this did was make the actual paragraph in the Robert’s Rules part of our code, so that when the mayor needs to reference, he clicks on his iPad, chapter 2.3 comes up and he can cite it to someone.”
That’s Assemblywoman Chris Lynch, who cosponsored the ordinance with Assemblywoman Carol Austerman. Lynch said the ordinance didn’t change anything about borough code, it simply emphasized a policy already in place and made it more accessible as its own ordinance, rather than buried in Roberts Rules.
“We follow Robert’s Rules of Order but we don’t sit there with a Robert’s Rules of Order for dummies book – where as we do have borough code that we can call up right away.”
Austerman said the ordinance came about as a way to help simplify the process for handling comments that might be out of line during a meeting. Over the past year there have been a handful of instances where people, both from the community and on the assembly, have had point of order called on them for making hostile comments.
“Personally hostile. Not based on decisions made or on issues in front of the assembly, but personal hostile public comment, which is not acceptable under Robert’s Rules of Order.”
When point of order is called, it’s up to the borough mayor to decide if people were truly out of line in their commentary, much like a judge can overrule or sustain an objection in court. Even if the mayor allows the point of order, people are still permitted to talk; they just need to do so in a more appropriate manner.
Both Austerman and Lynch said the goal was never to silence people, but rather make sure they were actually addressing borough policies and procedures, not criticizing staff or assembly members.
Still, some have interpreted the ordinance as a violation of free speech. Betty MacTavish was behind the petition to repeal the ordinance and said she understands the ordinance is based on Robert’s Rules of Order, but doesn’t believe it should be applied to community members.
“A citizen coming in to make a comment has not been trained in Robert’s Rules of Order. So having a citizen feel comfortable enough to come before the assembly, (they) should be able to speak. So Robert’s Rule’s of Order in addressing each other as assembly members, but should not pertain to citizen’s comments.”
MacTavish said Robert’s Rules are indeed applied to debate decorum, but community comments aren’t part of a debate and therefore shouldn’t be held to those proceedings. She said people do sometimes get heated during their commentary, but their three minutes of public comment shouldn’t be hindered.
Getting back to the referendum petition that MacTavish applied for and was denied, a written opinion from the borough attorney said the ordinance in question is what’s called an administrative ordinance and can’t be repealed by referendum, which is why it was denied. Legislative ordinances can be subject to referendum, but administrative ones carry out borough policies and procedures already in place.
MacTavish said she and those who support the repeal are planning to resubmit the application, this time including paperwork that was missing the first time. She said it will likely be denied again due to the administrative nature of the ordinance, but she feels it’s important to keep standing up for individual opinions in the community.
Another option is that the assembly revisit the matter and vote to repeal it themselves. Austerman said that isn’t likely, and even if it was repealed by the assembly it wouldn’t change how the meetings are run, because Robert’s Rules still govern them.