Contentious tennis measures fail to pass Anchorage Assembly

Nathaniel Herz

The tennis ball is still in the Anchorage Assembly's court.

Two months after first considering whether to accept state grant money for the construction of indoor tennis courts in the Turnagain neighborhood, Assembly members remained at an impasse on the issue, failing to approve two tennis-related measures at their meeting Tuesday night.

The Assembly voted on both, but each measure fell one short of the six members required for passage -- meaning that it will now take at least another two weeks before new spending plans can come to the floor.

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Dan Sullivan introduced a new measure that would allow another Assembly vote later this month, after members hear more public testimony.

Still, Assembly members, tennis players and onlookers seemed to be getting impatient.

"We're frustrated with the political process," said Allen Clendaniel, the president of the Alaska Tennis Association. "It just doesn't seem to be working here."

Or, as mayoral candidate and former Assemblyman Dan Coffey put it: "Can anyone spell 'dysfunctional'?"

The Assembly has sparred over the money since early October, when several members objected to the fact that the tennis court funds came to the city without their knowledge, after a request to state legislators from the Alaska Tennis Association that Sullivan supported.

Some state legislators also have said they were unaware that money for the courts was in the capital budget when they voted on it.

Assembly members had three different options before them Tuesday that would have directed how the city would spend the grant money, which totals $37 million.

One, sponsored by Assemblyman Tim Steele, would have put $7.7 million toward construction of a recreation center in Turnagain that would house the tennis courts. That measure failed by a vote of 6 to 5, with members Chris Birch, Patrick Flynn, Jennifer Johnston and Ernie Hall joining Steele in support.

A second, sponsored by Assemblyman Bill Starr, would have set aside just $4 million for a recreation center, and put more of the grant money toward renovations and upgrades to city ice arenas. That also failed by a vote of 6 to 5, with members Adam Trombley, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Dick Traini and Paul Honeman siding with Starr.

The third spending plan, sponsored by Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, would have returned $6 million of the grant to the state. That measure had not been considered as of 10 p.m. Tuesday, but it appeared to lack the support of the majority of members.

Sullivan said that his new measure would dedicate $7.2 million toward the recreation center housing the tennis courts -- $500,000 less than what Steele had proposed.

It's not clear that his upcoming proposal would be enough of a concession to bridge the gap between the Assembly members that were split between Starr's and Steele's competing plans -- though Sullivan said he wasn't convinced a concession was necessary.

"I'm not so sure, at this stage, that it's strictly a numbers game," he said. "We'll keep trying to come up with, 'What's the perfect number?' And this will be one more chance to see if we can do it."

The Assembly also approved by a 10 to 1 vote a long-awaited overhaul of the city's taxi code.

The new measure will raise rates, expand background checks on aspiring drivers and require every cab to have surveillance cameras recording drivers and passengers, plus a GPS tracking system.

It also will enhance code enforcement, which some -- especially disabled riders -- have criticized as inadequate.

The Assembly approved a series of amendments to the new taxi ordinance, as well. One removed a requirement that all vehicles have front- or four-wheel-drive; that would have forced many taxi permit owners to replace their rear-wheel-drive Ford Crown Victorias.

Another amendment requires dispatchers to track any delayed calls in Girdwood and in Chugiak-Eagle River, where some residents have complained of subpar service.

A third allows passengers to file complaints with the Anchorage equal rights commission if they think they've been the victim of discrimination. That's a frequent criticism made by disabled passengers, who say their calls can be met with unreasonable delays.

Just one member, Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, voted against the measure. He objected to the scope of the new ordinance, saying that the Assembly "bit off a little more than we can chew here."

But another member, Chugiak-Eagle River Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, said she was only giving her approval begrudgingly -- and promised to revisit the taxi code if service didn't improve in her area.

"It's the system we have, and there's not the vote to change it at this point," she said.

She added that the "fundamental issue" is that the city's taxi industry is so heavily regulated -- with steep permit fees limiting access to the market -- that she would prefer to see those barriers removed.