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Anchorage appeals decision on labor law petition drive to Supreme Court

Nathaniel Herz

The city of Anchorage is appealing to the Alaska Supreme Court a lower court decision that paved the way for local unions to organize a petition drive to repeal a controversial labor law that passed this year.

In a written statement Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler said he advised the city clerk to launch the appeal because of the potential for the case's outcome to have broad impact beyond the implementation of the labor law.

"Are we a representative democracy or a direct democracy?" Wheeler said in an interview. "We think the issues are far more important than people say they are."

In August, Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth ruled against the city, rejecting arguments that the law -- which limits raises, eliminates binding arbitration and allows outsourcing of work currently done by unions -- was too narrow and technical for voters to consider.

That allowed municipal unions to launch a petition drive to put a referendum on the ballot to repeal the law. The unions said this week that they had gathered more than 22,000 signatures, which are under review by the city clerk.

That review process will continue, and the appeal won't have any bearing on the scheduling of the referendum unless the Supreme Court sides with the city, Wheeler said.

The labor law is suspended, based on the filing of the unions' petitions, and according to the city charter the Assembly has the option of scheduling a special election within the next two and a half months or postponing a vote until a regular municipal election.

The next regular election is in April. But Wednesday afternoon, the Assembly distributed an agenda for its meeting next week that included a measure to push a vote to April 2015, coinciding with the city's next mayoral election. The sponsors were three of the Assembly's conservative members: Jennifer Johnston, Chris Birch, and Amy Demboski.

Johnston said she sponsored the measure because she thought it was unlikely the Supreme Court will rule on the appeal before the election in April.

"I don't want to have a vote before we have some kind of legal opinion from the Supreme Court," she said in an interview. And, she added, "your mayoral race is a high-turnout race, and on a policy issue like this I think you need to have as many people as possible voting on it."

Another measure on the agenda, sponsored by Assembly members Dick Traini, Elvi Gray-Jackson ,and Paul Honeman, would schedule the referendum for April 2014.

Beth Adams, chief deputy clerk at the Alaska State Court System, said Supreme Court cases typically take about 20 months from start to finish, and seven or eight months at minimum. The city had an option to file for expedited consideration but it preferred to wait to see whether the Assembly postponed the referendum, Wheeler said.

Derek Hsieh, president of the city's police union, said he was disappointed with the city's move given the degree of public engagement with the petition process.

"This is something that's extraordinarily political and that people are willing to go all chips in on," he said. "I don't think that the public appreciates politicians doing that, particularly in this case, with their money."

Wheeler said the city was in the process of paying some $19,000 to the unions to cover their attorneys' fees from the lower court case, but he said he had not calculated the amount of time city attorneys had dedicated to work on the case.

"When you have issues like this, the amount of money is tiny," he said. "One employee can burn up $19,000 in overtime in no time."

Though Wheeler was hired by Mayor Dan Sullivan, he stressed that his advice to the city clerk was based on an independent analysis of the legal issues. Sullivan, who spearheaded passage of the labor law, was not involved in the review, Wheeler said.

"This is really about protecting the Assembly's powers, not the mayor's," Wheeler said, noting that the Assembly was the body that had ultimately voted to pass the law.

In an interview, Sullivan said he agreed with Wheeler's position.

"You've got a fairly important legal issue that needs to be decided definitively, and obviously you don't get that with a Superior Court decision," he said.

Even though the measure is suspended, Sullivan said the city would maintain the negotiating posture set by the labor law while it waits for the Assembly to schedule an election and for the Supreme Court to hear the appeal.

The original intent of the law, he said, was not to dictate policies to his own staff but to guide future administrations, citing what he called an expensive set of union contracts approved in 2008.

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


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com