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Assemblyman wants to move city elections from April to November

Nathaniel Herz
Erik Hill

An Anchorage Assembly member is planning to introduce legislation that would change the date of city elections from April to November -- with the side effect of extending his own term by 10 months.

Assemblyman Chris Birch says that voter turnout for the April elections is lackluster, which he maintains that a move to November would cure. He wants to introduce an ordinance to do so at the Assembly's next meeting, and hopes to have it in effect for next year's election.

But he's waiting for advice from the city's ethics board, which is being asked to rule whether such a move is permissible under Anchorage code -- and it's far from clear that it is.

Under the code, Assembly members are not allowed to participate in actions in which they have a "substantial financial interest." Members are paid $28,000 per year.

Birch is barred by term limits from running for re-election. His measure would extend his time in office by about 10 months, based on provisions in his legislation setting out how long terms would run following the date of an election.

Based on the city's ethics code, it's possible that none of the Assembly members could vote on the proposed ordinance, which would effectively provide them with more than $20,000 in extra salary.

"If that isn't a conflict of interest, I don't know what is," said Terry Kelly, a member of the ethics board, at a meeting Thursday.

Birch, who represents South Anchorage, said he thought that a disclosure of his financial interest would negate any conflict.

Anchorage's April elections date back to the early 1990s, after a campaign by former assemblyman Jim Kubitz to switch the date from October.

Kubitz, who now works for the Alaska Railroad Corp., said that at the time, city elections would get overshadowed by state campaigns.

"It got really jumbled up in peoples' minds, and they couldn't separate the city issues, local bonds, Assembly, from state issues," he said in a phone interview.

His measure, which passed the Assembly in 1989, delayed the change by four years, so that none of the Assembly members who voted on it would benefit directly.

Birch said that he's not willing to wait that long, noting the discrepancy between the typical 20 to 30 percent participation rate in city elections, compared to more than 50 percent at state elections.

"I feel very strongly that the public interest is best served by holding not one more election with a 20 percent turnout," he said.

He denied that the measure was an effort to extend his own term, or to influence the outcome of a high-profile referendum campaign to repeal a city labor law that Birch supports.

Assemblyman Dick Traini, however, disagreed, saying that Birch's proposal should be titled the "Self-Serving Assembly Act of 2013."

Moving city elections to a fall date would also force candidates to compete with their state-level counterparts for cash, and attention, Traini added.

"You can't raise money. You can't get campaign workers. And you can't buy air time," he said.

Ernie Hall, the Assembly's chairman, said that he liked the concept of moving city elections to a date with better turnout. But he noted that such a change would likely present serious logistical challenges, given the complexities entailed with running a city election in tandem with a state election.

"It's something that I'm listening to and looking at," Hall said. "There's a lot of questions that are going to need to be answered with it."

The ethics board will meet again Friday at 11 a.m. Birch said he hopes the board will rule in time for him to introduce the measure at the Assembly's next meeting, on Dec. 17.

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

 


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com