The Anchorage Assembly took one more stab at preventing the referendum on Ordinance 37 (AO-37) — the controversial labor law passed in February of 2013 — from making it onto a ballot this November. Items need to be finalized by August 19, and Tuesday’s meeting was the last regular meeting before that deadline.
With the clock winding down, two actions ended up on the night’s agenda. The first was an outright repeal of AO-37, in its entirety, which would cancel the referendum. The second was AO-80, a compromise ordinance that sought to replace AO-37. The new proposal, authored by Assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston, has been the subject of ad hoc work group meetings, an assembly work session, and multiple revisions by Johnston and her colleagues, Assembly members Dick Traini and Elvi Gray-Jackson.
Unions made concessions on upward of 50 different provisions within the compromise legislation, but still maintained three major areas of concern. The dozen or so speakers who showed up to testify repeatedly recited the lopsided ratio of concessions endured by the unions, compared to areas they still felt needed further work. Freshman Assemblyman Bill Evans, who chaired the ad hoc committee to try and find areas of agreement, pushed back on the perception of unfairness leveled at the assembly.
“Would [the unions] be willing to trade the 46 items they agreed to for the one management rights provision that they don’t agree with?” Evans asked. “Not all these things are created equal. There are things that are of more significant importance than others. So saying that, you know, I agreed to 46 things but I only want three things is not exactly, necessarily, an even balance.”
“Sometimes a pound of feathers is different than a pound of lead,” Assembly Chair Patrick Flynn added.
The first source of contention centered around a provision, held over from AO-37, which exempts certain employees from collective bargaining. This includes non-represented, supervisory, and confidential employees, as well as information technology positions. The second hangup dealt with public employees’ right to negotiate over shifts, staffing, and equipment. The third concerned a provision that required assembly approval of personnel regulations, which, as written, would supersede contracts negotiated in good faith through collective bargaining.
The general consensus displayed by the compromise’s supporters on the assembly — and even some of the inevitable dissenters — was that it was a decent compromise, albeit not perfect. But as anyone involved with policy will quickly point out, there is no such thing as a perfect law. The best thing to aim for is a perfectible law, and many pointed to the flexibility afforded in the compromise package aimed at that end.
“The idea that code is set in stone, I hope, is not the message that we take away,” Assemblyman Bill Starr explained. “We need to modify the code so that it remains flexible. When it becomes a direct affront against employees themselves, that’s why I became so active. It’s also why I’ve voted for repeal now twice.”
Starr said they needed to reestablish trust, and criticized the process that lead to passage of AO-37, saying that the assembly “got left out.” He challenged Mayor Sullivan, adding that he would vote to override a veto. “I think it’s time to move on.”
“If we’re all a little bit unhappy, perhaps this is the right thing to do,” Assemblyman Paul Honeman said, voicing cautious support of the agreement.
Johnston, however, chose to spend her closing remarks heralding tech utopianism. She said she was inspired by a speech given by Terry Jones, the founder of Travelocity and the Chairman of the Board of Kayak.com, an online travel search engine. Jones recently spoke at an Anchorage Economic Development Corporation luncheon, which Johnston attended.
It’s a changing model. This is all a different model. [Jones’s] whole talk was how we have to be flexible, we have to be nimble, we have to be accountable, and we have to be adaptable. And he said that not necessarily that the business has gone away. We haven’t stopped reading but we don’t really have book stores anymore. We haven’t stopped traveling… but it’s not the travel agencies of the 1980s. We don’t necessarily stop listening to music, but we listen to iTunes, Spotify, and if none of you know what I’m talking about, you might ask somebody a little younger. Anyway, my point is, is government is the same. We have to be flexible, nimble, accountable, adaptable. Because it’s not the services that are changing in government. We still have the basic service we need to provide to the communities. But it’s the mode of how we provide it.
She also referenced Amazon’s lofty proposal of delivery-by-drones as a possible method of fire fighting in the future. The whole exchange was rather odd.
In the end, she concluded by stating her belief that, in assessing the language in the final version of AO-80, “we’re looking to go back to the future, and I’m not comfortable with it.”
Both the repeal of AO-37 and the compromise package were approved, in two separate votes, by a 7-4 margin. Assembly members Amy Demboski, Jennifer Johnston, Bill Evans, and Ernie Hall dissented. The vote tallies, however, put each measure one shy of a veto proof majority. Mayor Sullivan has seven days to mull over such action, and did not immediately wield his pen (as he is generally wont to do). But he also did not back away from his controversial legislation.
Sullivan said that the process behind AO-37 could probably have been done better, but reiterated that multiple work sessions and ample — according to him — public comment were entertained. “We always knew we would be able to negotiate,” he said, pointing out that several contracts had been approved subsequently, adhering to the tenets of AO-37. “We were going to take a position of tough negotiation on behalf of the taxpayers of this community.”
It should be noted that AO-37 was suspended when the referendum was approved. The negotiations that led to those contracts did not require the law and did not benefit from its would-be mandate, calling into question the underlying necessity of the law in the first place.
Should the mayor issue a veto, the Assembly has preemptively scheduled a special meeting for August 12 at 6pm. Tonight’s votes present a dim forecast for the assembly’s chances of overriding it. The mayor, who is also running on the Republican ticket for lieutenant governor this November, will weigh his options. Should the measure remain on the ballot, the municipal clerk has estimated the costs to those same “taxpayers of this community” to be as high as $436,000.