Last night’s Anchorage Assembly meeting postponed the debate over Anchorage’s controversial labor rewrite, instead choosing to hit a politically convenient pause button, in lieu of democracy.
The body voted 6-5 to place the referendum on a ballot that coincides with November’s general election.
The ordinance is suspended from being enacted until the vote, as Charter mandates that any ordinance be suspended if the petition for referendum is filed within 60 days of its initial effective date.
South Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Birch also introduced a last minute agenda item that would move municipal elections, held in April, to November. The switch would not take effect until 2017, given the conflict of interest such an ordinance would impose on current assembly members (though Birch has fought this).
To fully appreciate the weird place Anchorage finds itself today, let’s take a jog down memory lane to highlight the backdoor shenanigans that have plagued (and cost) residents of the municipality for a full year.
If you’re already well versed and would prefer skipping the primer, just scroll past this first section.
AO37: from there to… wherever we are now.
On February 8, 2013, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan introduced AO37, pleasantly entitled the “Responsible Labor Act.”
AO37 would curb collective bargaining rights of city unions. It would ban strikes, work stoppages, and slowdowns. The measure also would empower the Assembly to be the final arbiter of labor disputes. The measure would strip the concepts of longevity and performance-based pay. Employee pay and benefits freeze and “managed competition” would allow private contractors to bid against city workers.
Labor was not happy. Packed meetings ensued. Hundreds of city workers and their friends, families, and supporters lined the Assembly Chambers, night after night, wishing to add their voices in protest.
In March, testimony was shut down despite hundreds still wishing to speak. At the following meeting, just one week before the regular municipal election, the measure was passed by a 6-5 margin.
Immediately, a repeal effort was established. The following month, the Repeal 37 group turned in two petitions that would allow them to begin collecting the 7,200 signatures needed to get the repeal question on the ballot. Each petition was denied by the city’s attorney, Dennis Wheeler. In late August, Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth told Wheeler he was incorrect, and allowed the signature collection to proceed.
September was a busy month. On the 16th, Repeal 37 turned in over 22,000 signatures – more than three times the necessary threshold. The city appealed the decision to the State Supreme Court. September 26, the City Clerk validated the signatures.
In October, the Assembly tried to repeal the law legislatively; saving the city the $250,000 a special election was estimated to cost and preventing a lot of possible campaign backlash for assembly members up for reelection. That effort failed. The assembly voted to place the repeal vote on the regular April ballot, which the mayor immediately vetoed. Another court battle ensued, with the city and assembly suing each other over whether or not the mayor had the power to decide when a ballot item could be voted on.
Two additional court decisions have come down between then and now. The Alaska Supreme Court weighed in on the city’s appeal regarding whether or not voters should be permitted to vote on the matter. Simple answer: yes. The following week, however, a Superior Court decision upheld the mayor’s right to veto the assembly’s placement of the referendum on the municipal ballot. It was a strange decision, given what the Charter says:
A referendum shall be submitted to the voters at a regular or special election held not later than 75 days after certification of the petition. However, the assembly may submit a referendum to the voters at a later regular or special election if the assembly suspends the ordinance until the election.
The Assembly weighed the options and felt that placing the referendum on the next regularly occurring municipal election ballot made the most sense; special elections are costly and it’s a municipal issue. The court’s decision that this was a legislative move, thus subject to a mayoral veto, essentially means that any election the assembly chooses would be seen as a legislative move subject to mayoral veto. The mayor should not have this power. But that’s where we are.
“It’s a sham.”
During the State of the Union Address, Anchorage Assembly Chair Ernie Hall moved an ordinance sponsored by members Amy Demboski, Jennifer Johnston, Bill Starr, and Chris Birch, continuing the suspension of AO37 until a referendum vote, scheduled “no later” than the municipal election in 2015, but assigned to November’s general election date, though it would be on a separate ballot.
It was clear, going into the meeting, that the mayor enjoyed his usual 6-5 majority amenable to postponing the referendum.
South Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Birch lauded the effort, repeating his mantra that both this ballot item and the entire municipal elections, generally held in April, should be moved to November to coincide with statewide and national elections.
Our community issues are best decided at a time when we have a high voter turnout, and clearly November has demonstrated… we see a potential of a fifty percent turnout of municipal voters in a November election, versus as low as a 20 percent turnout as we experienced last April.
Mr. Birch never addressed who put the assembly in charge of conducting elections according to maximum voter turnout. Obviously, high voter turnout is the goal of any democratic society, but the Charter simply has no language indicating that reaching those ends is within the Assembly’s jurisdiction. Birch’s intent may be noble, but it’s simply not his job.
What the Charter does make clear, as articulated by west Anchorage Assemblyman Tim Steele, is the petition process. Municipal residents are required to attain the signatures of at least ten percent of voters who cast ballots in the last mayoral election. Next, “a referendum shall be submitted to the voters at a regular or special election held not later than 75 days after certification of the petition.”
This puts the justifiable time frame for a referendum date at either March 31, or April 1st; the latter of which happens to be date of the next regular municipal election.
Midtown Assemblyman Dick Traini offered the harshest indictment of the creative process employed by the mayor, and his supporters on the assembly, to subvert the will of the Charter and the municipal residents who followed the clear process afforded them:
This is an attempt to get around the public. We’ve got 22,000 people that signed their name on a petition to vote on this thing, and we need to put this up for a vote of the public on the 31st of March, or the next day, which would be the first of April. This is just a sham, and anybody that votes for this, keep in mind the public’s not going to be confused to what you’re doing tonight. They’re going to vote against you come April, they’re going to turn you out of office. And then we’ll come back as a new body and repeal this thing completely.
So, now, the question is how voters will respond; both in April when six of the eleven Assembly members face reelection (including two of the mayor’s majority), and in November, when the referendum may end up being decided on the same date as Mayor Dan Sullivan’s political future. Sullivan is currently running on the GOP ticket for Lieutenant Governor.