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Soldotna City Council rejects lewdness ordinance

Ash Magallanes testifies in front of the Soldotna City Council Wednesday.
Sabine Poux
Ash Magallanes testifies in front of the Soldotna City Council Wednesday.

A heated debate over what is and isn’t allowed in Soldotna’s public spaces is over, for now, after the city council this month quashed a series of proposed policy changes — nine months after a drag performance in Soldotna Creek Park first sparked intense discussion over what’s appropriate and constitutionally protected in the city’s public spaces.

A standing-room-only crowd packed Wednesday’s city council meeting, alternating two hours of impassioned testimony on one of those policies, which would have made lewdness in Soldotna’s public spaces a fineable offense.

But members of the council said they didn’t think the policy on the table addressed any real problems the city had, and ultimately voted no on the ordinance.

“I think it comes down to sending a message,” said council member Jordan Chilson after the vote. “And that message that we’re sending, we have to consider very carefully.”

The debate over the city’s policies started last summer, following a Pride month event in Soldotna Creek Park which included performances from drag queens. And while there was no pushback at the event itself, it became a target after the fact when a conservative Alaska blogger posted an eight-second clip of a performer twerking onstage.

Drag performers have become a political target, nationwide; Tennessee just passed a lawcriminalizing public drag performances, and other laws are in the works.

In the months following the performance, a vocal group of local residents and business owners showed up to city council and parks advisory board meetings, demanding the city drill down on what they said was inappropriate behavior at local parks that they don’t want their kids to see.

City Manager Stephanie Queen — who herself was told to resign by those who pushed back against the performances last summer — said members of her staff were getting threatened over the issue.

The city council, in response to the pushback, said the performance was legal and protected in the constitution as freedom of expression, but agreed to take another look at its park policies. Officials crafted a series of proposed policy changes, including one that would’ve drilled down on what’s considered obscene and is not allowed at city parks, and another that would've updated the city’s park reservation policies — both of which were shot down earlier this month at the council’s March 8 meeting.

A third ordinance, barring lewdness in public spaces city-wide, not just in parks, came before the council Wednesday night after it was tabled at that earlier meeting. The ordinance would have made “lewdness or lascivious behavior” a minor offense, with a $250 fine.

“A person commits the minor offense of lewdness or lascivious behavior if, in a public place, that person engages in acts of ‘sexual conduct,’ ‘specified sexual activities,’ exposes ‘specified anatomical areas,’ or engages in ‘obscene’ conduct,” the proposed ordinance read.

Some of the behavior outlined in the ordinance is already barred at the state level. Earlier this month, City Attorney Brooks Chandler said, crucially, the ordinance included definitions and examples of what would be barred, such as simulations of sex or performances that would be harmful to minors. City staff said they didn’t think the performance at Pride in the Park wouldn’t have been prohibited under the legislation.

Still, commenters on both sides of the issue said the ordinance would send a message.

“We – the families, the couples that are raising children, our children here – we’re raising the future of this community,” said Joshua Scilzo, who has spoken about the proposed policies at multiple city council meetings. “And we have a right to discuss sexuality with them in the privacy of our own homes and not to go into the public spaces of this town and have to explain to them things that they don’t need to be exposed to at that age.”

But those who organized and attended pride, and testified before the city council Wednesday, said passing laws like this one in response to Soldotna Pride tells the LGBTQ+ community it is not welcome.

“Please understand that your decisions, actions and the language you use directly contribute to how the community receives us when we leave our house,” said Ash Magallanes, a parent and member of Soldotna’s LGBTQ+ community. “And will continue to affect ours and our children’s daily lives on a daily basis, since we hope to never leave the area.”

In the end, the majority of city council members said it was unclear what the ordinance was trying to accomplish, and that the wording in the legislation was still too subjective. The ordinance failed, 4-2.

“I don't want to see everybody running around the park this summer with their iPhones taking pictures and then going to the chief and saying, ‘Is this something? Can we do something?’ I just can’t get there from here,” said council member Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings.

Farnsworth-Hutchings was joined by Chilson, Dan Nelson and Chera Wackler in voting no; Lisa Parker and Dave Carey voted in favor.

The council could take the ordinance up again but it would have to be reintroduced by one of the members in the majority who voted against it.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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