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Hectic Assembly meeting ends with little clarity on labor law

Nathaniel Herz

The protracted fight over a new city labor law has already been the subject of a referendum campaign and a lawsuit that's reached the state Supreme Court.

But the battle between Mayor Dan Sullivan and his labor law opponents reached a new pitch at Tuesday night's Assembly meeting. Spectators watched a flurry of speeches, votes and vetoes that left the dispute no closer to resolution than it had been six hours earlier, at the start of the meeting.

The session ended with Sullivan using his veto to keep the Assembly from repealing the law. But a parallel skirmish over when the public might be able to vote on the measure is now headed to Superior Court, where a judge will settle a disagreement between attorneys for Sullivan and the Assembly over the mayor's veto powers.

And there is still a pending Supreme Court case, which could extinguish the referendum campaign altogether and seal a Sullivan victory.

What will come next? As Sullivan put it in an interview Tuesday: "The game has not ended yet."

The labor law, passed in March at Sullivan's urging by a 6 to 5 vote, has been fiercely attacked by city workers, union officials and their allies on the Anchorage Assembly -- most stridently by Assemblyman Dick Traini. The opponents have criticized what they say are draconian provisions in the law, like strict ceilings for raises for city workers and new limits on municipal unions' rights to strike.

At the meeting Tuesday, the labor law battle played out on two fronts.

The first was a fight over repealing the measure entirely. In that case, the Assembly reversed itself and approved the repeal by a 7 to 4 vote.

But Sullivan vetoed the decision on the spot. (It takes eight votes to override a veto, and the assembly didn't try to do so.)

The second fight was over the date of a public vote to confirm or repeal the labor law.

The Assembly voted 6 to 5 Tuesday in favor of a measure placing the question on the April municipal ballot.

Sullivan immediately vetoed that, sparking a dispute between Assembly attorney Julia Tucker and Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler.

Tucker said the mayor lacks the power, under the city charter, to veto a public vote scheduled by the Assembly. Wheeler, who was appointed by Sullivan, argued that he does.

Assembly Chair Ernie Hall said he wouldn't accept the veto unless it was recognized as legitimate by the Superior Court -- a course of action he said he'd worked out earlier in the day in a meeting with Sullivan.

"When we sat down and chatted about it, the mayor had no problem with it at all," Hall said in an interview. "It all played out pretty clean."

But the ultimate fate of the labor law remains as murky as ever.

At present, the law isn't even in effect -- it was suspended in September, when unions turned in what they said were more than 20,000 signatures in support of a public vote on the measure.

But that public vote can only happen if the Alaska Supreme Court backs a Superior Court decision that the labor law is subject to public referendum. Wheeler argues that the labor law is not a fit subject for a public vote.

If the Supreme Court allows the vote, and if citizens reject the law, it would not take effect. If voters support the ordinance, it would become city law.

Now, the second court case will determine whether Sullivan can legally overrule the Assembly decision to schedule the vote on the law for April.

The April election is the date preferred by the law's opponents. Supporters want the referendum delayed until November 2014, in tandem with a state election, which they argue would result in a higher voter turnout.

Each side accuses the other of trying to set a date that best suits its political purposes, either harnessing or neutralizing what is likely to be a heavy pro-labor turnout.

A Superior Court judge will be asked to decide for or against Sullivan's veto of the April date by no later than January, Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler said in an interview.

That could further complicate matters.

Under the city charter, the labor law referendum should be set for a special election on Dec. 10, or, if the Assembly can agree on one, a later date.

But if the veto is upheld in January, it would be too late for a special election. And the Assembly would be left without any date for a vote -- and potentially out of compliance with the charter -- unless it comes up with an alternative before then.

Wheeler maintained that would constitute an Assembly choice -- not one they were forced into. He said the problem could be fixed by Assembly members passing a referendum date "that they know the Mayor's not going to veto."

Wheeler said the Sullivan administration wants the Assembly to pass a measure specifically abandoning the December special election date, and acknowledging that there would not be a vote before April.

Another option would be for the Assembly to approve the November 2014 referendum date.

On Tuesday the Assembly postponed a decision on whether to do that. Based on its approval of the April date, however, it seems unlikely that November 2014 would get the support of a majority of the Assembly.

But Hall, the chairman, speculated in an interview that "you might get a (an assembly member's) vote changed someplace."

Hall maintained that a December vote is still technically an option, though it would be "almost impossible" to organize.

Scheduling the referendum for November 2014 could also cause problems for the city clerk's office, which office opposes such a move.

In an email to the Assembly last month, Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones warned that her office would have to compete with the state to hire already scarce election workers, and that state ballots could get mixed up with city ballots.

Scheduling the vote to coincide with the November state election would cost at least $345,000, according to an analysis by the clerk's office. In contrast, adding the question to the April ballot would incur no extra cost.

(Proponents of the November date say the $345,000 cost would be acceptable because so much money is at stake in union contracts affected by the labor law -- if it passes.)

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, will hear oral arguments in January on the city's appeal of the lower court decision that the labor law is a legitimate subject for the public to vote on.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.