Assembly votes to introduce invocation elimination ordinance

  • Willy Dunne, District 9 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member.

The public will finally get a formal chance to weigh in on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s invocation practice in March.

In a narrow 5-4 vote, the assembly voted to introduce assembly member Willy Dunne’s ordinance that would eliminate the invocation from the proceedings. The ordinance, identical to two others that both failed before introduction in 2016, would repeal the section of the code providing for an invocation before the meetings.

Dunne, who represents an enormous district on the southern peninsula including Anchor Point, Fritz Creek and Seldovia, said he at least wanted the assembly to introduce the ordinance so it would have a public hearing. Because the other two ordinances were voted down before introduction, there was never a formal public hearing with notice, so the only people who were able to weigh in were those at the assembly chambers in Soldotna.

“I know a number of my constituents would like to comment on this proposal that were not able to comment tonight. If it is introduced, they would be able to comment through the borough annex building in Homer,” he said. “I imagine there’s people in Seward who would be in the same situation, where they would like to comment on this.”

In the past, votes on issues to do with the invocation have been deeply entrenched, with six members supporting the invocation and the policy restricting who can give it and three — Assembly President Kelly Cooper of Homer, assembly member Brandii Holmdahl of Seward and Dunne — opposing the policy and in favor of either eliminating the invocation or making it open to everyone. However, this time the composition of the assembly changed. At the beginning of the meeting, the assembly voted to replace assembly member Blaine Gilman, who resigned effective Jan. 18, with Kenai resident Jill Schaefer. She voted to introduce Dunne’s ordinance.

The other member who switched sides was Wayne Ogle of Nikiski. In the past, he has voted to support keeping the invocation in meetings and to uphold the invocation policy that is currently the subject of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska against the borough.

Ogle said he agreed with Dunne’s purpose to allow the public a chance for a hearing.

“You do make a point that perhaps we do need further debate on that,” he said. “I have a lot of constituents that are very much in favor of the invocation and feel that it is very useful and also something that’s been going on for 30 years. There is opposition to the removal of the invocation, despite what some people think.”

Tensions among assembly members rose, though. While Cooper presided over the proceedings around the ordinance’s introduction, she asked the assembly members to keep their comments strictly to the merits of introduction rather than the content of the ordinance. She cut off assembly member Paul Fischer during his comments on it, saying he was getting off track.

“I’m talking about the merits of not introducing,” he fired back when Cooper interrupted.

She also decided not to allow public comments on the introduction. The president of the assembly can allow the public to weigh in on introduction at his or her discretion, she said. Presidents in the past have allowed it — both of the ordinances in 2016 that proposed eliminating prayer received many public comments on introduction.

Assembly member Dale Bagley said he was unhappy with how Cooper ran the meeting during his general assembly comments at the end of the meeting.

“I know most of the time assembly presidents have allowed a wide discretion on assembly comments during that time and I guess I’m not happy that you’re trying to limit it to just the merits of introduction,” he said.

He also said he raised his hand to ask a question of one of the public commenters and Cooper failed to call on him, which she said was a mistake because she didn’t see him.

The ordinance is set for public hearing at the March 21 meeting. Members of the public can submit written comments to the assembly or attend the meeting to weigh in, and those in Seward and Homer can request that the borough annexes there be open to allow teleconferenced comments. Dunne said he knew the Homer annex planned to be open.

The assembly also took action on a reconsideration notice Dunne gave at the last meeting on a resolution clarifying that each assembly member speaks only for his or herself on the intent of the invocation policy. Reconsideration allows the assembly to essentially reset the clock and allows them to redo a vote on a past decision. The resolution states that the intent of the assembly is fully and only set out within the language of the resolution containing the invocation policy.

“I think it’s just extremely odd that out of hundreds of resolutions we’ve passed, this particular one required an additional resolution to basically say that none of the discussion leading up to its passage was relevant,” Dunne said.

To reconsider a past decision, a motion has to receive five votes. The motion to reconsider failed 6-3, with Cooper, Dunne and Holmdahl voting for it.

Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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