A unanimous Anchorage Assembly voted Tuesday to have the city's internal auditor look into labor contract modifications approved by Mayor Mark Begich's administration without their approval. The audit will also look back at contract practices in prior administrations to at least 1990.
Assemblyman Bill Starr questioned the Begich administration adjustments -- which range from changes in shift limits for some non-sworn police employees to implementing a six-month program allowing Anchorage officers to drive their patrol cars to homes in the Mat-Su -- and said he thinks they are plainly in violation of city labor laws. Starr said some of the modifications could have big implications for the city's operating budgets.
Begich, however, says such changes to contracts are common in the city's history and happened frequently during his nine years as an Assemblyman. More than 40 such adjustments occurred during the administrations of former mayors George Wuerch and Rick Mystrom, Begich said in an interview Tuesday.
In an interview earlier, Wuerch denied that such modifications occurred during his watch.
"That's absolutely untrue," Wuerch said. "You don't amend them, modify them or change them without going back to the Assembly and saying, 'Hey, we want to make these changes.' "
But Denis LeBlanc, who served as city budget director under Wuerch and later was city manager under Begich, said Begich is right. The present practice is no different from what happed under the Wuerch administration, LeBlanc said.
Begich said Wuerch likely wasn't aware of contract changes signed off on by his city manager or other executives.
In arguing for the audit, Starr called changing language in ratified labor contracts without the Assembly's go-ahead "a blatant manipulation."
"When you change the wording of this contract, that violates this (city) code," he said.
Assemblyman Chris Birch said he's asked for an accounting of the costs of the changes, which he said could be "hundreds of thousands of dollars" outside approved contracts.
Why not just take such contract modifications back to the Assembly for review? Begich was asked.
It's cumbersome, he replied, especially for technical changes to contracts that may have one, three or five years to run. If the Assembly considered every minor change, union members would have to vote on them again too.
Most Assembly members who spoke to the issue Tuesday weren't as sharply critical as Birch and Starr. They said it just seems worthwhile to ask internal auditor Peter Raiskums to review how these contract changes have been done and see if there are better ways to do things.
"I don't know that anything has happened that is wrong or illegal," said Assemblywoman Sheila Selkregg. "At this point I don't think ... we can assume what the outcome of this audit will be."
Assemblyman Pat Flynn, an Alaska Railroad vice president, said such informal contract adjustments are not unusual in either government or private businesses.
"Most organizations have a process by which labor representatives and management representatives" make such modifications after contracts have been ratified, Flynn said. Raiskums' review can look into whether the city's practice has gone too far, he said.
Begich downplayed the uproar, which occurred only a week before his Nov. 4 election date with Sen. Ted Stevens, whose 40-year tenure Begich is trying to end. The mayor said he welcomes the audit of the city's labor practices -- though he calls it a review.
"We think it's a good idea," Begich told the Assembly. "I think looking back at the last four or five administrations is great." If the review convinces members that change is needed, "change it," he said.
Starr insisted his complaints about the side agreements between city and labor officials aren't politically motivated. They are coming up now because he only learned of them last week through a public records request filed by one of his constituents, former Anchorage cop William Webster, he said.
Some examples of the types of contract changes Starr cites:
The amount of compensatory time police field training officers receive.
Temporary pay adjustments for fire department lead dispatchers who were training new, probationary dispatchers.
A six-month pilot program that allowed Anchorage police who live in the Mat-Su to drive their patrol cars home. Cops who chose to do so were required to keep logs recording the mileage from the Knik River bridge to the officers' homes, among other things. The program ended Jan. 31 of this year.