Mayor can veto date for referendum on labor law, judge rules

Nathaniel Herz

A Superior Court judge's ruling Wednesday set back the chances of an April vote on a controversial labor law, delivering a victory to Mayor Dan Sullivan in his 9-month-old battle over the law with unions and the Anchorage Assembly.

A ruling last week from the Alaska Supreme Court in a separate case had cleared the way for a referendum on the law to go ahead, following a legal challenge from the city clerk's office. That was a victory for the local unions, who have been pushing to repeal the law since it passed last March.

But Wednesday, Judge Erin Marston handed the unions a defeat, ruling that the city charter allows Sullivan to veto a decision by the Assembly to schedule the referendum for April.

Attorneys for the Assembly had disputed that power, saying that members had been exercising a technical, "administrative" duty in setting the date of the vote, which therefore could not be vetoed.

Marston disagreed, ruling that "the mayor acted pursuant to his broadly construed veto authority that vests 'sweeping' powers in his position."

"No case law in this state exists that has created an administrative exception to the mayoral veto," Marston said. "And no express provision restricts the mayor's veto authority."

Marston's ruling threw the date of the labor law referendum into uncertainty.

The law, which sharply curtails union power, has been suspended since August, pending the outcome of the referendum campaign to overturn it.

For the last several months, Sullivan and Assembly members have been maneuvering to schedule the referendum at the most politically advantageous time.

Sullivan's opponents on the Assembly, led by Dick Traini, had been pushing for the vote to be held in the regular April municipal election, arguing that it's the logical decision under guidelines laid out in the city charter.

But scheduling the vote for that date would also have the side effect of driving pro-union -- and anti-Sullivan -- turnout to Assembly races, putting the re-election bids of at least one of the mayor's allies, Adam Trombley, at risk.

Sullivan and his allies have pushed to postpone the vote, and want to hold it either alongside the state election in November, or with the next mayoral election in 2015.

They maintain that those election dates -- which typically see higher voter turnout -- would give more citizens a chance to decide whether they want to keep the labor law.

In a prepared statement, Sullivan said he was pleased with Marston's ruling.

"My administration will continue to work diligently with the Assembly in the future, and we'll remain strong in our conviction that elections of significant community interest are best conducted when voter turnout is proven to be significantly larger," Sullivan said.

Traini, who had vehemently disputed the mayor's veto power, said he was disappointed with the decision.

"I don't like it, of course," he said in a phone interview. "But at least it cleared it up."

Traini said Assembly members have several ways to respond at their next meeting, on Jan. 28, including voting to override Sullivan's veto.

But that would take eight members, and given that there were only six who supported the original move to schedule the referendum for April, an override seems unlikely.

The Assembly could also ask Marston to reconsider, or appeal to Alaska Supreme Court, Traini said. That decision, he added, would likely be in the hands of Chair Ernie Hall, who did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Or, the Assembly could pass a separate measure that would schedule the referendum with the state election in November, if an agreement can be reached with state officials. If not, the vote would default to Anchorage's mayoral election in April of 2015.

Calculations by an Assembly budget analyst says that scheduling the referendum with the state election in November would likely cost the city at least $345,000. The city clerk's office opposes the idea, citing the price tag, ballot security risks, and the strain on staff from asking them to coordinate an extra election.

Pushing the referendum to April of 2015 would not generate any costs.


Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.