OPINION: Anchorage officials want carrots, public gives them the stick

  • Anchorage Assembly chair Felix Rivera, third from left, speaks during a meeting on July 27. The Assembly has postponed a vote on purchasing four buildings in Anchorage to expand homeless services after massive public opposition to the plan. (Photo/Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News)

Don’t get a tattoo.

Wear your mask.

Don’t go out (especially after midnight).

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has eagerly accepted the mantle of parent-in-chief and admitted as much to KTUU in a July 1 interview after he announced his municipal mask mandate on June 26.

“Nobody likes eating vegetables either,” he said, “but sometimes you have to be told to do the right thing because it’s the right thing.”

Notwithstanding how the vendors of the weekly Anchorage farmers’ markets may feel about the mayor knocking their products with his glib take, what we have learned since lockdown and hunker down orders started being issued in March is that law-abiding people are quite easy to boss around.

Business owners will shut down at the risk of losing their livelihoods rather than risk losing their licenses. Shoppers will don a mask in order to make their Costco run. Students will forgo once-in-a-lifetime graduation experiences. Families will give up funerals, weddings and church services.

In short, we’ll eat our damn vegetables.

But when it comes to the people in Anchorage who most need help, who desperately need to be told to do the right thing, the mayor has been quite unwilling to even suggest a switch from a sugar-based diet to sprouts and salads.

While the coronavirus is concerning, homelessness has become a full-blown humanitarian crisis under this mayor’s watch.

Berkowitz can attempt to deflect blame as much as he likes to the federal government, the pesky ACLU or the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the heartbreaking scenes of daily life in Anchorage are on him and his supermajority of allies on the Assembly.

The mayor is closing out his six years in office with an attempt to convert $22.5 million worth of CARES cash into campuses he claims will curb the rampant problems of vagrancy, larceny, loitering, littering and public intoxication that are plaguing the municipality.

Before moving on, lest this skepticism be interpreted as callous, or worse, racist, Anchorage does need infrastructure to care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Although the locations can be debated, and the NIMBY impulse will always run strong, we need additional space for addiction and mental health treatment, as well as temporary and transitional housing for those who need a hand up and not a handout.

However, this mayor and the majority of this Assembly have earned absolutely zero confidence they can be trusted to execute a successful strategy even were they able to bypass the Planning and Zoning Commission or avoid a federal audit for using economic aid funds to fix their failures that were the norm long before the new normal.

Meet the new normal, same as the old normal.

Nobody should believe anything will get better if the mayor gets his way. Not after more than five years of essentially unchecked authority in Anchorage until five days of overwhelming opposition that proved the public has well and truly had enough.

If the rest of us can be forced to stay home, stay closed or stay covered for our own good, then surely the same logic applies to those who have long lost track of what is good for them whether from mental trauma or hopeless addiction.

Until a plan includes enforcing the law, we will never identify and separate those who need help, those who want help and those who just want to help themselves to whatever isn’t nailed down.

Mental health care is a huge challenge and we can look no further than the disaster at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute for evidence. Mandatory in-patient addiction treatment for chronic violators will likely require statutory changes at either the state or local level.

Securing neighborhoods where treatment facilities are sited will require resources, but if bars ever get to resume normal business we have an alcohol tax for that.

Those are major obstacles to overcome, and the mayor has squandered five-plus years to clear them, but doing so is critical to receive public support.

Eating your vegetables can’t all be carrots.

The mayor and the Assembly are going to keep getting the stick until they figure that out.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
07/29/2020 - 9:21am