Latest labor law clash tests Sullivan's veto powers

Nathaniel Herz

The latest clash over Anchorage's eight-month-old labor law centers on Mayor Dan Sullivan's veto powers.

At Tuesday's Assembly meeting, Sullivan tried to veto a measure that would set April 1 as the date for a referendum on the law. That drew a protest from an Assembly attorney. Sullivan's move was later set aside until it could be considered by a Superior Court judge.

The city charter will likely determine whether the veto stands. At the meeting, and in interviews, lawyers and Assembly members offered competing interpretations of charter provisions. The dispute essentially hinges on whether a mayor's veto power trumps the Assembly's ability to control elections.

Both sides seem confident.

"I don't see a veto. There is no veto," said Assemblyman Dick Traini, a vocal opponent of Sullivan's labor law.

Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler disagreed. Wheeler maintains that history backs him up. His office is "a lot more comfortable" with its stance on Sullivan's veto than it is with its position on a related labor law case before the Supreme Court, which has to do with distinctions between "legislative" and "administrative" laws.

"There's certainly a lot more case law about the mayor's veto power. There's a lot more charter history," Wheeler said in an interview.

The mayoral veto powers haven't been tested in at least a decade. Sullivan's predecessor, Mark Begich, only vetoed one measure in more than five years, and that one was overturned by the Assembly.

Wheeler cited three cases where the mayor's veto power was upheld after a challenge. The most recent involved a citizen suit over Mayor Rick Mystrom's ability to veto the school district's budget, in which justices sided with Mystrom in a 2001 decision.

Wheeler's position is outlined in a memo to Sullivan that was provided to the Daily News.

It draws on the 2001 decision, in which the justices said that the city charter gives the mayor "a general veto power" unless there's a specific exception. And there is no exception in the section of the charter that allows the Assembly to set the date for a referendum -- unlike in other sections.

The opposing view was articulated at the Tuesday meeting by Julia Tucker, the Assembly's counsel, and further explained in a memo Traini sent to the Daily News.

Tucker argues in the memo -- written before Tuesday's meeting -- that Sullivan may not interfere with a power that's "entirely within the authority of the Assembly under the charter," and implies that's the case with the referendum date.

"Were the mayor to exercise veto over an ordinance setting the election, and thus manipulate the election to a date suited to the mayor, it raises the specter of violating the separations of power doctrine," she said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.