Our View: Slow down on labor law; do it right

We agree with some of the goals in Mayor Dan Sullivan's city labor rules ordinance, but not the way he has worked to pass it.

We think he's right that longevity and "performance pay" for city employees should go away. Workers shouldn't receive bonuses simply for doing the jobs they were hired to do. Municipal managers need the flexibility to schedule employees to minimize overtime, just as most private employers do. And if the city can streamline benefit packages and cut costs, that's good.

But this is complicated business, and the end result needs to be justified and reasonably fair to taxpayers and the city's 2,200 employees. That takes time and discussion by all interested parties.

Right now, the amended version of the ordinance still leaves employees, citizens and even some Assembly members wondering exactly what parts of it mean. That confusion is the result of the rushed and manipulative manner in which the ordinance was introduced and has been considered thus far.

The mayor's initial proposal blindsided everyone except a handful of supportive insiders. Even city department heads and most of the Assembly didn't know about the proposed ordinance until it was announced late on a Friday afternoon. That was Feb. 8. The mayor called for the Assembly to vote on it as early as Feb. 26. (Under ordinary circumstances, the Anchorage Assembly couldn't vote to leave a burning building that quickly.)

The mayor said he wanted the new labor law in place before he began negotiating union contracts up for renewal in 2013. He said he would have liked to have had more time for vetting and revisions. That's disingenuous because in fact the mayor controlled the clock. He clearly gave himself months to craft an ordinance behind closed doors. He sprang it without warning and then called for urgent passage by a compliant Assembly majority -- all designed to change city law with as little public scrutiny as possible.

The mayor's timing was also calculated to protect his collaborators on the Assembly from opposition to their re-election campaigns.

The mayor argues that this wasn't a union-busting ambush but that's obviously untrue. There was little trust between the mayor and unionized city employees before this proposed ordinance surfaced. Now, as several long nights of testimony have shown, city workers are convinced that they work for a mayor who doesn't respect them and isn't interested in talking with them. That shouldn't be the case.

A few weeks of vetting and testimony that the Assembly simply could not avoid have brought some improvements and clarifications in the ordinance. Police, fire and emergency medical services will not be subject to "managed competition," the term for outsourcing city work to cheaper private vendors. The cap on wage increases has been raised from the five-year-average increase in the Consumer Price Index to 1 percent above that figure.

Even so, Assembly members like Debbie Ossiander still aren't clear what some of the language in the ordinance actually means. For the benefit of conscientious Assembly members, city workers and the public, that's reason enough to slow down this train.

The unions say they are willing to talk and prepared to make concessions. As Rod Harris of the firefighters union said: City workers have good pay and benefits, and they know it. At the same time, citizens get high-caliber employees who provide good service.

The Assembly doesn't need to and shouldn't fast-track the mayor's power play. If we're going to change the law, let's take the time to do it well -- make it clear, fair to workers and taxpayers alike, and reaffirm principles like respect and good faith.

Unfortunately, as of Friday, the smart money says it's too late, the fix is already in. The only unsettled question is whether the Assembly will pass the mayor's ordinance 6-5 or 7-4.

If that's all that happens, this will be a sorry episode in the history of the city -- a day when political machination ran roughshod over good and thoughtful governance.

BOTTOM LINE: There's no fire; take the time to listen to the community and craft a labor ordinance that is good for the whole city.