The Kodiak Island Borough has rejected a request for a referendum seeking to overturn the borough’s public decorum ordinance.
Had it been approved, the referendum would have appeared on the Oct. 7 municipal election ballot and given voters the opportunity to repeal ordinance FY2014-20, commonly known as the decorum ordinance. The ordinance, which the borough adopted on July 3, states public meetings shall be conducted “in a courteous and respectful manner” and “every person shall avoid the use of profanities, personally offensive, insulting, threatening, or abusive remarks at all times.” The ordinance goes on to state that “under no circumstance can a person attack or question the motives of another person.”
It’s not so much the ban on profanities or abusive remarks that have Kodiak Island residents upset as much as it is the idea of who or what entity can control their public comments.
“To me, that’s silencing free speech. What recourse does that citizen have, and that’s the issue here,” said Betty MacTavish, one of the organizers behind the failed referendum. “That’s striking a chord with many people. Free speech is a big deal. It’s a very big deal. Our take is that we cannot call into question the assembly members and how they came to the decision they did. That seems to be outside the scope of being American.”
The ordinance states if a commenter violates the ordinance, the assembly chairperson “must act immediately and decisively to correct any person violating decorum in debate and prevent its repetition … the public member called to order shall immediately cease speaking and cease the action to which he was called to order.”
The borough rejected the call for a referendum on two points. First, a paperwork glitch stymied the request — referendum backers failed to attach a copy of the ordinance to the proper paperwork submitted to the borough. Second, state law and the Alaska Constitution make provisions for governmental agencies to enact codes and ordinances regarding comments at public meetings.
According to an official letter by borough clerk Nova Javier to MacTivish, which cited the Alaska Constitution, “The referendum shall not be applied to dedications of revenue, to appropriations, to local or special legislation, or laws necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety.”
Borough attorney Joseph Levesque performed the legal review of the referendum request, and in doing so also cited several Alaska court cases that set precedents about governing bodies implementing public comment ordinances.
Levesque also wrote in his review that, legally, the borough ordinance is an administrative ordinance rather than a legislative act and not subject to a referendum as administrative ordinances fall outside the scope of voter referendums.
For residents who wanted to see the ordinance reversed, remaining options are limited and they’re not too sure what might happen next.
“It seems to show more of a reason to call question to this,” MacTavish said. “This was not something I expected.”
The Borough Assembly can repeal the ordinance at a future time, Levesque wrote in an email to the Daily Mirror.