The Soldotna City Council on Wednesday tabled legislation that would adopt a citywide lewdness and lascivious behavior policy and make such behavior a fineable offense.
The ordinance was one of three pieces of legislation brought forward by the city for consideration Wednesday. The trio of ordinances is the product of months of work by city administrators to review city code regarding park use and obscenity in response to complaints from some members of the community over a drag performance held last summer in Soldotna Creek Park.
A clip of the performance, which was held as part of the 2022 Pride in the Park event, showed Anchorage drag queen Brenden Badd twerking and doing backflips in what appears to be a miniskirt and thong as part of the performance. Some said the performer was wearing skin-colored leggings and the thong over the leggings.
Backlash was swift from community members who said the performance was obscene and inappropriate for a city park, while others said the performance is protected speech and a form of expression for the LGBTQ+ community. Over multiple months, council members heard hours of public testimony on the subject, which at times grew heated.
City administrators presented a package of proposed changes to city code during a work session with the Soldotna Parks and Recreation Advisory Board in January for consideration by board members and members of the public. Many of the proposals discussed at that meeting were included in the legislation put before council members Wednesday, which address lewdness and use of Soldotna Creek Park.
“These three pieces of legislation together reflect our best effort to kind of address some of the questions and update our code,” Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen told council members Wednesday.
In crafting the two ordinances and one policy change, Queen said she and city staff worked with Soldotna City Attorney Brooks Chandler to develop policy that was clear and easily understood, while also being legally defensible and enforceable by city staff. Queen said staff realize parks should be safe and welcoming, but that Soldotna Creek Park specifically is a public forum that accommodates diverse viewpoints.
Council members first considered legislation that would have included “obscene” language to the list of conduct prohibited at city parks and required a description of proposed activities to be included with park use permit applications. It would also have added, among others definitions of terms like “obscene,” “specified sexual activities” and “specified anatomical areas,” to the chapter.
Council members Lisa Parker and Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings questioned whether or not, under the ordinance, women could wear low-cut tops while in the park. The questions were in response to a section of the ordinance that would include the intentional exposure of “specified anatomical areas,” to include “female breast below a point immediately above the top of the areola.”
“There does seem to be a trend toward greater exposure of female breast and there’s definitely a likelihood that some of the attire would violate this ordinance as currently written,” Chandler said. “Whether that’s a concern to Soldotna or not I guess would be your call.”
Council member Jordan Chilson asked Queen whether or not the legislation being considered would have barred last summer’s Pride in the Park event from being held if the language had been in place last summer.
“It’s my opinion that, had these three pieces of legislation been adopted at the time of the pride event last year, and based on what I saw — I wasn’t in attendance, but based on what I saw — I don’t believe it would have restricted any of the activities that occurred,” Queen said.
Council members ultimately defeated the ordinance by a vote of 3-2.
The second ordinance considered by council members Wednesday would add similar language to the city’s minor offenses section of city code, meaning the changes would apply to the whole city instead of just to park facilities. Under the legislation, someone could be fined $250 for committing the offense of lewdness or lascivious behavior as described and defined by the ordinance.
Chilson pointed out that a lot of the behavior the city is concerned about preventing is already prohibited by the State of Alaska.
“There are certainly things that exist out there … that our children do deserve to be protected from,” Chilson said. “I don’t disagree with that. My issue is that those protections already exist. They’re defined at the state level. And I don’t know if it’s necessarily the most effective response to try to double regulate at a level that this would be.”
Chandler said the changes to city code, if approved, would be “more detailed and specific” than what exists in Alaska Statute. There is no state law that addresses simulated sexual conduct, for example, nor one that addresses sexual conduct that occurs even if genitals are not exposed.
“This is more restrictive than state law and, in my view, a lot clearer when it comes to enforcement as to what is or isn’t illegal conduct in existing state law,” Chandler said. “ … You will not find this level of detail in the Criminal Code of the State of Alaska.”
Council members voted 4-1 to table the ordinance, saying that they needed more time to review the changes, with Chilson voting in opposition.
The council also voted down the last piece of legislation related to park use and obscenity considered Wednesday, which would have updated the Soldotna Creek Park special event policies and reservation procedures. Queen told council members that the policy changes are largely administrative and came from city staff and the Soldotna Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
The legislation would establish for Soldotna Creek Park an online reservation calendar, better park signage and scheduled blackout days on which no events could be held at the park. Queen told council members that the policy revision, independent of the two ordinances, would improve city operations. However, the updated policy contains terms defined in the other two ordinances.
“I did a quick scan through the resolution and it does use the words disorderly conduct and it does use the word obscene so I think we might need additional time to decide whether the city has sufficient definitions of those,” Queen said. “If not, I would potentially come back and recommend those phrases be deleted.”
The council ultimately voted down the third ordinance.
Council and community members also took time Wednesday to reflect on how the city has responded to the circumstances that led to the legislation considered Wednesday.
Council member Dave Carey said it is valid for the community and city council to talk about what children should or should not be exposed to, but one of his biggest takeaways was the question of whether or not the council could have handled the situation better, citing limits on communication between council members and tense meetings.
“I wasn’t pleased meeting after meeting, sitting up here and almost thinking like we were going to be shot by the group,” Carey said. “Now, I know that wasn’t the case, OK? I’m real clear in my knowledge. But it was very stern and it was somewhat intense. Over and over and over and over. I don’t think that’s good citizenship that we allowed that to go on, meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting.”
Chilson thanked attendees for the productive discourse at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I would like to thank everyone that came out tonight to share feedback on what can be certainly perceived as a very difficult issue to address,” Chilson said. “The fact that we’re able to have respectful discussion on both sides of this is something that I greatly appreciate.”
By the end of the evening, no new changes to city policies or code were approved by council members. The tabled ordinance will appear as pending legislation on future council agendas until it is removed from the table, or until the city’s next regular election, at which point it would fall off the table.
Wednesday’s full meeting of the Soldotna City Council can be streamed on the city’s website at soldotna.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.