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City rejects a proposed referendum that would repeal just-passed labor law

The city has rejected a proposed referendum petition to repeal the ordinance passed in March that rewrites city labor law.

City attorney Dennis Wheeler said the ordinance can't legally be the subject of a referendum vote because referendums are restricted to actions that are legislative, vs. administrative.

The city attorney's office maintains the labor ordinance is administrative in nature.

A legal opinion by Wheeler's office that supports the city attorney's stand was distributed by the city clerk on Tuesday afternoon.

Andy Holleman, the Anchorage teachers' union president and one of two main sponsors of the referendum petition, said he and other backers of the referendum are meeting with attorneys, and he didn't have any immediate comments on the city's decision.

The labor law rewrite, sponsored by Mayor Dan Sullivan and two Assembly leaders, stripped power from the eight city unions. It removed the right to strike, limited annual pay increases, outlawed performance bonuses or incentives in future contracts and set up a system for outsourcing some work done by city employees.

Sullivan said the old labor law was out of date and he wanted to make union negotiations more efficient.

The mayor pushed to get the ordinance approved before the end of March so that it would apply to a new round of negotiations with the city unions, beginning in April. The Assembly approved the measure in a 6-5 vote on March 26.

Anchorage union leaders filed a referendum petition with the clerk's office two weeks ago. It simply asks for the question to be put to voters: Shall AO 37 (the labor law ordinance) remain law?

Sponsors would have to gather about 7,200 signatures of registered voters to get the question on the ballot.

And if the sponsors gathered the required amount of petition signatures within 60 days of the law's approval, the provisions of the ordinance would be suspended until an election decided the matter.

The proposed referendum had the support of not just city unions, but other representatives of organized labor. When it was filed with the city clerk's office, Vince Beltrami, president of the AFL-CIO statewide federation of unions, said, "We're going to do everything we can to help."

Wheeler said the whole ordinance cannot be repealed by referendum because as a whole, it is an administrative action. "If they were to come back and look at one or two pieces of it," they might find sections that are legislative, he said.

He declined to give any examples based on the labor law ordinance, but described the difference between legislative and administrative ordinances this way:

"Assume there was no smoking ordinance, and the Assembly came up with the idea of banning it in public places. That could be subject to referendum. It's legislative, setting broad new policy."

But if there were a second ordinance establishing fines for violating the smoking law, that might be administrative, Wheeler said.

The city attorney's office also said proposed referendum didn't meet some technical standards, such as attaching the ordinance itself to the petition, but those problems could be fixed.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.