Council takes first step to approve Public Safety Commission
The Nome Common Council formally introduced two ordinances and gave the nod to second reading and final passage of two more.
However, a raft of business came up informally during the agenda item Citizens’ Comment, a standing item, on the agenda near the first and again near the last of the meeting program. Yes, the Council voted unanimously, those who possess one may use an Alaska Commercial Driver’s license to prove an applicant for a City of Nome Chauffeur’s License meets the minimum health standards; and yes, a list of definitions may be adopted into City law that clarify the granting of sales tax exemptions to qualified organizations.
Further, the Council unanimously gave thumbs-up to the first reading of the upcoming Port of Nome Tariff 15, which replaces all pre-existing port tariffs. And, following debate back and forth on whether to move first reading of Public Safety Commission on or off the table at Monday night’s meeting, the Council voted a unanimous yes to move the proposed ordinance forward despite the feeling voiced by some that the framework had been rushed.
About 30 community members collected at Trigg Tribal Hall Monday evening Feb. 18 to discuss and describe a proposed public safety commission to promote communication and increased accountability between the public and the Nome Police Department. The group made progress after months of talk in that a Feb. 18 version of the commission with suggested small changes made Feb. 19 would go onto the Council agenda for first reading at the next regular Council meeting Feb. 25. The ordinance would be a template for setting up a nine-member body with the police chief and the city manager as additional ex officio members.
Some who attended the gathering wanted to wait until after spring festivities, as Iditarod, and the City’s FY2020 budget sessions had concluded, and work on the commission ordinance more before presenting it to the Council. Again, some thought the ordinance had been stamped “Rush” prematurely.
Mayor Richard Beneville, with some attendees of the Feb. 18 session, voiced an opinion that some form of the ordinance ought to get on the books without a long delay, and continue as a work in progress.
However, the Public Safety Commission issue did not flit through the Feb. 25 meeting with the alacrity of the previous three measures. The idea of a commission, which ostensibly would be an advisory group on safety issues, but in reality would focus on Nome Police Dept. procedures and policies, came up last summer with complaints from the public that NPD was not responding to Alaska Native victim reports of domestic violence and sex crimes.
A presentation by Austin Ahmasuk during the first public comment session foreshadowed later discussion when the proposed ordinance came up for Council action. His comments were his own, he stressed, and did not represent his workplace. Ahmasuk’s presentation listed historical signposts that he felt told people within and without the Alaska Native community that their culture was without value. He was happy, he said that a public safety commission ordinance was moving forward.
“I hope it does some really good.”
It was the first time in 100 years, he thought that anything had been done for public safety except enforcement. “I don’t think that many Native people think that their culture is valued,” he said.
He had reviewed Council packets and police statistics going back to 2016 and found that police calls, from 55 percent to 100 percent, depending on the issue, involved alcohol. He found out in 2017 that the Council wanted a better policy on repeat alcohol offenders, but he didn’t find any follow up. “In Jan. 8, 2018, this Council requested a re-examination of excise tax, but I don’t recall or didn’t find in Council meeting minutes anywhere that were followed up on,” Ahmasuk continued.
“These were all things in response to Nome Police Department calls on crime,” Ahmasuk said. “I do see in Council packets that Nome Police Dept. at times collaborates with Norton Sound Health Corp. and Bering Sea Women’s Group, but I don’t find any record, any proof that the City of Nome, which allows alcohol consumption, paid for any kind of alcohol treatment for people in this community, or for people who suffer from crime from all the cases from alcohol—with two exceptions.
“On Feb. 13, 2017, this Council brought for the Local 1547 bargaining agreement, and in a section there you talk about treatment for alcoholics in the union agreement,” he said. “The only other thing in those couple of years of research was a Port of Nome open containers. So from my research, this City is not paying for the problems of alcohol.
I found out from a colleague that the taxes you levy on alcohol cannot be earmarked for any specific alcohol treatment. It seems really sad.
“In my looking at crime stats for Nome in 2017 and 2016, as well as NPD reports, there is an alarming rate of people-on-people crime in Alaska Natives ages 20 to 40. There’s a lot of repeat offending. I certainly hope this Public Safety Commission will do some good toward them,” Ahmasuk said. He then branched into historical accounts of Native and non-Native relationships during the gold rush that were safety issues, including destruction of Native occupancy of land in the Nome town site that was designated only military, according to Ahmasuk’s research.
“The Public Safety Commission is one of the first things the City of Nome can do for Alaska Natives in a good way. I certainly hope the Council adopts the ordinance and does good things for Alaska Native people,” Ahmasuk concluded. The Council does not discuss issues back and forth during public comment, only listens.
Nicole Frank took the podium to note that the commission document did not contain a tailoring of executive sessions in the meetings to receive confidential complaints. Under Robert’s Rules of Order, topics for executive session are limited and do not include confidential complaints.
The Council showed a coolness to the Public Safety Commission doing independent investigations, as it would be an advisory council to the Nome Common Council, in which the ultimate responsibility for public safety rested. The panel would not do independent investigations or have hiring-firing or discipline authority of NPD.
Lisa Ellanna took the podium to ask questions and offer changes to the document, including the composition of the membership. The phrase “attempt to have the membership composition reflect the cultural makeup of the community” should drop the word ‘attempt,’ she said, and make it so.
Ellanna also urged that American Civil Liberties Union representation be included in the shaping of the commission. She was grateful the work was underway, wanted to slow the commission process to allow inclusion of more people. Triada Stamps, ACLU policy director and Stephen Koteff, ACLU legal director, attended the Feb. 18 meeting and made their assistance available for the asking.
Keith Morrison introduced himself at the podium to put on public record that he was pleased that “we continue to move this forward,” he said. “However, I felt the last meeting was one-sided—felt stacked with the ordinance drawn up behind closed doors. I felt we were asked to give feedback on a document we had never seen before [the meeting],” he said.
When the question came up on the agenda, the Council and City administration debated on whether to vote on first reading or to allow more time for crafting the ordinance.
“There is no reason this can’t be tabled tonight,” John K. Handeland, interim city manager, said. “I understood we weren’t moving fast enough. If we’re not ready to move, we don’t need to move it.”
“My preference is to put it through first reading and then to second reading,” Council member Jerald Brown said. “The title is vague enough that almost any amendment would be acceptable.”
“In hindsight, if the Public Safety Commission had been in place, where if there were ride-alongs [in police cars by unauthorized persons or juveniles], this would have been brought up and stopped immediately,” Councilman Mark Johnson said.
The Council voted to pass onto second reading and final passage this ordinance enabling the formation of the Public Safety Commission.When the measure comes up for final passage, it may be discussed and amended before the vote. Later, commission members may offer suggestions for further changes.
In other business:
Mayor Richard Beneville congratulated Mike Morgan and Chris Olds for winning the 2019 Iron Dog Snowmachine Race
Councilman Mark Johnson asked for more information from the NPD. “It’s nice to have these weekly press releases,” he said. “We have a police chief and three investigators. Do we have stats on the open cases and where they are to see if we need three investigators?”
The Council ratified Beneville’s reappointment of Sara Lizak to the Nome Planning Commission and Scot Henderson to the Nome Port Commission.
Councilwoman Jennifer Reader quizzed Handeland on how the search for a permanent city manager was going. Bad weather and being busy have stood in the way of having a meeting with the committee, Handeland said. Reader noted that the closing date for applications was in October that some of the applicants might not be waiting around for the job. Beneville said that in some time, “we might handle it a different way” signaling what the street talkers think they know—that Handeland may be transferring from utility manager to city manager.