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Nome Public Safety Advisory Commission Not Involved in Florence Okpealuk Case and Not By Choice

Members of the Public Safety Advisory Commission scrutinize interview questions for the Chief of Police candidates. Photo from Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM (2020)

The City of Nome spent over a year organizing public meetings and training sessions to create the Nome Public Safety Advisory commission. Yet, in the midst of an ongoing search for a local missing woman, the commission says they aren’t being utilized.

Public Safety Advisory Commissioner Lisa Ellanna first learned about the search and rescue for a missing Nome woman through a city press release that was sent to her employer. She then took her concern to a recent meeting of the Nome City Council.

“We could be helping but we’re completely left out of the conversation, just wanted to make you aware of that.”

– Lisa Ellanna

The case in question is the disappearance of 33-year-old Florence Okpealuk who was last seen four weeks ago [August 30th] and reported missing on August 31st.

Nome’s Interim Mayor John Handeland, who is responsible for appointing the commissioners, said the Public Safety Advisory Commission (PSAC) wasn’t excluded on purpose.

“But there also was not anything that required action by anyone other than the police department.”

– John Handeland

Yet some public safety commissioners disagree with that statement.

One of the key duties of the PSAC is to “promote and foster communication by and between members of the public and the public safety department.”

The commission was formed 2019 to try and right the legacy of mistrust between the Nome citizens, especially Alaska Native citizens, and the City of Nome government, along with the Nome Police Department. Some of that mistrust dates back to the murder of Sonja Ivanoff in 2003 by a Nome police officer. Also, the ACLU of Alaska is currently suing the City of Nome for an alleged failure of NPD to investigate the sexual assaults of Native women.

Commission Chairman Irvin Barnes believes that the Public Safety Advisory Commission could have been working with the City of Nome to better inform the public.

“The Chief and Deputy Chief have sent us e-mails of those press releases. I think we need to be a part of that moving forward. I think we need to be working together and being at the table when we’re getting to put things out like that.”

– Irvin Barnes

As Commisioner Ellanna pointed out, the commission is comprised, by ordinance, of Alaska Native and non-Native women and men, including Elders. She says they can be a useful partner to the City of Nome because they, “always have their ears to the community.”

“I think that we could be assisting on the public end. I think we could assisting with putting out press releases in partnership with the city. We can assist with helping to better coordinate searching efforts so that they are more unified and each individual search group is aware of areas that each of the other parties have searched.” 

Some of that communication breakdown may also be growing pains as the City of Nome management learns how to use the new commission.

As a public group associated with the City of Nome, the commission must meet in public session or executive session and need to have city staff available to maintain the public record. When the PSAC tried to schedule an emergency meeting to discuss the disappearance of Florence Okpealuk, they were denied.

Here’s Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman explaining why to the City Council.

“I’ve never heard of an emergency meeting of a commission. Even then it can’t just happen like that [snaps fingers] it usually takes a couple of days, at least twenty-four hours to do that. So that was communicated back through the Chairman.”

– Glenn Steckman

Nome commissions typically meet quarterly or monthly and do not have legislative power. They instead make recommendations to the City Council.

But just because commissions don’t hold emergency meetings, doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to, suggests Councilmember Jerald Brown.

“There’s some flexibility in the ordinance and that was intentional as far as their duties and whatnot…[speaking to Steckman] I’m wondering if you could resolve at the next meeting with the commission what types of things they would like to be notified of and then make sure that they are notified of those types of items?”

– Jerald Brown

Overall, the Nome City Council seemed supportive of utilizing its newest commission in the future.

Members of the Public Safety Advisory Commission expressed hope that they can strengthen their partnership with City of Nome officials moving forward. Chairman Irvin Barnes thinks his fellow commissioners have a lot to offer.

“This commission has decades of years of experience on it from living on this land and this region. There’s a lot of experience and a lot of wisdom and that’s what we want to embrace ”

The Public Safety Advisory Commission will met Thursday night to discuss their process of communication with the City of Nome, along with a review of body cam footage in which police officers tased a man on Front Street.

Image at Top: Members of the Public Safety Advisory Commission scrutinize interview questions for the Chief of Police candidates. Photo from Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM (2020)

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