Ethics board: Assembly member's move to change election date barred by city rules

nherz@adn.comDecember 9, 2013 

Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Birch and all 10 of his colleagues are barred by ethics rules from sponsoring legislation that would delay the date of next year's municipal election, the city's ethics board said in a ruling Monday.

But Birch intends to introduce the legislation at next week's Assembly meeting anyway, he said in an interview -- setting aside, at least temporarily, the ethics board's position that the measure represents a conflict of interest for Assembly members, who stand to earn as much as $20,000 in extra salary if a change were made.

The ethics board's decision is advisory, and the potential merits of moving city elections from April to November -- including boosting turnout -- are broad enough that the Assembly should still consider a change, Birch said.

"I'm not quibbling with the ethics board whatsoever. They do good work. They're volunteers. They put their heart and soul into it," he said. "I just think it's too important to kind of let it slide."

Birch, who represents South Anchorage, says that moving city elections from April to November could raise turnout from current levels, which have been as low as 20 percent, to closer to 50 percent.

But the move would have the side effect of extending Birch's term -- and those of all other Assembly members -- by as much as nine or 10 months, meaning that they could end up receiving the tens of thousands of dollars in extra salary.

In its ruling Monday afternoon, the five-member ethics board said that "every Assembly member has a substantial financial interest in moving the current election date back and extending terms."

"Therefore, no Assembly member may sponsor such an ordinance," the ruling said.

The board said that potential conflicts could be avoided if the Assembly postponed the effective date of the legislation by several years, so that the members voting on the measure would not be lengthening their own terms. That was done in the late 1980s, when the Assembly moved city elections from October to April.

"If this method were followed again, the goals of increased voter turnout and ethical governance could both be served," the ruling said.

Birch has represented South Anchorage for nearly nine years, and term limits bar him from seeking reelection.

He maintains the turnout problem is urgent enough that the city should hold "not one more election" on the April date.

He has denied that his measure is an effort to extend his own term, or to influence the outcome of a high-profile referendum campaign to repeal a city labor law that Birch supports.

He said he would be willing to serve the extra time without pay. And he maintains that the benefits of a date change outweigh the conflict of interest that the ethics board identified.

"It's clearly an issue, but I think it's way down the list, as far as the positive impacts of having a higher turnout," he said.

The ethics board took a different view in its opinion, saying that city rules place limits on Assembly actions no matter how well-intended.

"Laudable ends do not justify any and all means to achieve those ends," the board's opinion said.

Under city code, the Assembly itself is the final authority on whether a conflict of interest exists. But in this case, because the measure would impact all 11 members, the Assembly is actually barred from making such a determination itself, according to the ethics board.

Assemblyman Dick Traini, who opposes a date change, said in an interview that he would leave the meeting if Birch tried to introduce the measure for discussion.

"I'm walking out. He can talk to himself," Traini said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 

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