United for Liberty (UFL) hosted an “educational discussion” on Anchorage Ballot Measure 1 Friday night that likely did little to change minds.
The original format of the event was to be a debate on Anchorage Assembly Ordinance (AO) 37, a municipal labor code rewrite subject to referendum on November 4.
Municipal unions, who oppose AO 37, did not participate, pointing to the involvement of Assembly members Ernie Hall and Bill Evans. Hall and Evans were scheduled to represent the “Yes on 1” side in the debate.
The Anchorage Police Department Employees Association (APDEA) and International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 1264 are both currently in negotiations with the municipality. The Assembly will have to vote on the tentative agreements reached by the unions, regardless of the referendum result.
“We want to continue to have long-term relationships with current Assembly members,” Local 1264 spokesperson Brian Murphy told Alaska Dispatch News (ADN). “And we don’t think this is an appropriate forum for us.”
“I personally feel that there would be certainly no retribution for them participating that would in any way affect the bargaining process,” responded Evans.
Hall sponsored AO 37 and served as Assembly Chair during debate over the ordinance. Evans, who was not on the Assembly when AO 37 passed, served as chair of an ad hoc Labor Subcommittee that helped craft a compromise to AO 37. That ordinance, sponsored by Assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston, eventually earned the support of unions after amendments. Though it passed, Evans and Hall voted against it, and it was vetoed by Mayor Dan Sullivan.
When the unions declined to participate in Friday’s event, Evans contacted UFL and said he and Hall were “not interested in some kind of ‘faux debate.’” At his request, the format was changed to an informal dialogue with a moderator and audience questions.
Representing the “No on 1” side were Craig Fleener, former independent candidate for lieutenant governor who stepped aside to allow Byron Mallott to run on Bill Walker’s ticket, and Terrence Shanigan, an investigator for the Alaska State Troopers.
We’re Non-Partisan. Trust Us.
About 40 people attended the forum in the Assembly chambers at Loussac Library. UFL’s Michael Chambers began by introducing them to the organization, which he said was one and a half years old. The goal of UFL, said Chambers, was to stop political dysfunction by building common bonds and focusing on the 95 percent of things everyone agrees on so that “we can start getting along with each other.”
Chambers was frustrated that ADN called UFL “right-leaning.” That was not true, he said, describing UFL as an “openMichael Chambers
forum” that welcomed Republicans, members of the Alaska Independence Party (AIP), and the “Democrat Party.” UFL had received great marks for its non-partisanship in previous debates, Chambers said.
Chambers’ critique of ADN was disingenuous at best. The evidence strongly supports that UFL has a conservative perspective. While its website does have links to the AIP, Alaska Republican Party, and Alaska Constitution Party, it does not have a link to the Alaska Democratic Party. A brochure handed out at Friday’s event listed current active committees that include Nullification, Replacing the IRS, and the UN Agenda.
UFL sought to lend Friday’s forum a credibility that, quite frankly, it did not earn. Prior to the event, Chambers and UFL both posted on Facebook,
The Firefighters union refused to debate
The Anchorage Police union refused to debate
[Assembly members] Elvi-Gray Jackson
all refuse to step up and debate ….
Why? Because all these people think they have the “Vote NO” in the bag and they would prefer to spend $700,000.00 on yard signs and radio ads instead of taking 2 hours and face “We the People.”
These are words from which most debate hosts would shy away. To the contrary, the room was ringed by yellow “Yes on 1” signs Friday and one handwritten sign that had a red slash through the words “public sector unions.”
UFL distributed copies of municipal payroll documents Friday night, clearly intended to shock attendees with the numbers, inclusive of overtime and benefits.
They also handed out a sheet of FAQs. This sheet averred that AO 37 “provides a legal framework for collective bargaining,” though such a framework is already present in existing code and federal law. AO 37 “will allow more resources to be directed to public safety,” UFL’s FAQ sheet read, but it failed to say how or why.
On the subject of managed competition, the FAQ response read, “AO 37 includes the option of providing non-essential service (to exclude police and fire) from the private sector. This would provide a cost savings to the taxpayer. I don’t understand [sic]” (emphasis in original)
Readers may also not have understood. It is quite the assumption that private business would automatically do municipal union work for less money. Also, the exclusion is for direct public safety work. The municipal attorney’s office has said that dispatch would be included in the provisions of AO 37.
Chambers repeated Friday many of the points from his divisive Facebook post. “No on 1” was spending $700,000, he said, but was reluctant to debate. When he asked Assembly members to represent the No side, Chambers heard “crickets in the closet.” He was told that several Assembly members were Outside. Chambers responded, “I didn’t know emails didn’t go out of state.”
Chambers was not happy that ADN announced the debate was cancelled, which he seemed to blame for the light attendance. (I actually used ADN’s article to verify the event location and time for Alaska Commons’ coverage.)
Each side was allowed ten minutes for an opening statement. Hall began by recounting the origin of AO 37, saying it was a reaction to bad contracts negotiated under the previous mayoral administration. Those contracts were passed quickly by the Assembly, he said, without a summary of the economic effects. Hall said that, after those contracts, the “logical thing” to do was revisit the municipal labor code.
AO 37 was designed to put parameters on elected officials, said Hall. Under old contracts, municipal compensation including benefits exceeded double digit percent increases while the private sector suffered in the recession. Hall felt that the concessions the municipality asked of unions during that time amounted to a “promise not kept.”
Hall expressed regret at how the ordinance was introduced on a Friday afternoon shortly after the municipal election filing deadline, leaving him unopposed in his race. But AO 37 was subjected to five work sessions and seven weeks of debate, he said. Hall believed the Assembly worked with unions to fix problems and tried to honor Sullivan’s request that no worker be harmed by the provisions.
The Sullivan Administration authored AO 37.
Hall pointed to Johnston’s compromise ordinance, which he called AO 37 Lite. Hall felt the Assembly conceded many of the things unions wanted, but a group of members, including Hall, Evans, and Amy Demboski, who was present Friday night, refused to yield on the subject of management rights. That led to Sullivan’s veto.
Shanigan began by describing himself and Fleener as a couple of “village boys” wading into big city problems. Shanigan worked in Talkeetna, while Fleener served on the Fort Yukon City Council.
Shanigan said that AO 37 was written by elected officials, who only act with voters’ consent. He said AO 37 was bad for certain people. It had been repealed twice, with those repeals then being vetoed by Sullivan. The existing code, dating back to 1989, was flawed, and former mayor Mark Begich had taken advantage of those flaws, said Shanigan.
The language of AO 37 comes off as angry, Shanigan said. “I’d be angry, too, if I was Mayor Sullivan.”
Two unions, APDEA and IAFF, had not signed off on AO 37 because they are legally different, said Shanigan, beginning to list his disagreements with the ordinance. The removal of binding arbitration pits the city against the worker, he argued. Defaulting to the municipality’s last best offer was an example of the “tyrannical things in this document.”
He compared moving all municipal workers to one health plan to “Obamacare” reducing health care to four options. Fire fighters deal with noxious fumes and heavy loads on the job that are different than a secretary, said Shanigan. Under AO 37, they would be on the same health plan as the “flower boy on 4th Avenue. That’s angering.” Police also deal with repetitive stress on knees and backs from getting in and out of patrol cars, he said.
Phrases in AO 37 like “highest value for the lowest cost” were dangerous, said Shanigan, because we can’t always do things based on price. Constantly seeking the lowest cost threatened many things, including morale.
Shanigan felt there was a conflict in AO 37 regarding overtime for public safety workers. The Fair Labor Standards Act has an overtime exception for police and fire, he said, that AO 37 did not match.
Concluding, Shanigan said AO 37 was trying to fit a “square peg in a round hole. It doesn’t fit everybody.” AO 37 makes numerous references to a last best offer, said Shanigan, but it did not itself represent a last best offer; Johnston’s compromise did. The Assembly had something better, Shanigan said.
Evans Not Trying to Win Union Friends
Freshman Assemblyman Bill Evans repeated the words “property taxes” ten times to begin his speech. He said he served as a police officer in Cleveland, where he wasn’t special, but “maybe here they’re more special.”
Evans argued that only APDEA and IAFF were vocally opposed to AO 37. In a poor choice of words, Evans said these two unions had “hijacked” the debate and were holding the city “hostage” over the issue of public safety. To the suggestion that emergency calls wouldn’t be answered under AO 37, Evans responded, “That’s all crap.”
AO 37 does nothing to harm public safety, said Evans. “We work a lot of damn hours” on the Assembly, he said, and the Assembly is responsible for public safety.
Evans said AO 37 was not perfect, “but on the whole, it’s a fantastic document.” Unsustainable contracts had driven the municipal operating budget from about $300 million in 2003 to $431 million in 2008, he said. Politicians bankrupt cities, and AO 37 handcuffed politicians, said Evans.
Public unions did not exist before 1957. Evans called their genesis a “bad development.” Evans said Anchorage spends 80 percent of revenue on labor. “If we want things other than union labor, we have to make room,” he said.
I don’t think anyone on the Assembly would harm the city because they took political contributions from a union, said Evans, “but nobody knows that for sure.”
A neutral arbitrator would not be responsible to Anchorage, Evans said, so allowing the Assembly to choose the municipality’s last best offer was more fair to citizens. All an arbitrator looks at is whether a city can afford the union’s requested wage, not taking into account if the city has other needs like a new port, he said.
Although it may not have been a formal debate, the Yes and No sides rebutted each other frequently.
Fleener suggested the solution to Evans’ arbitrator problem would be for the Assembly to hire an arbitrator from Anchorage. Fleener did not understand why the municipality requires union membership of its workers, then punishes them with AO 37. This was “government overreach,” said Fleener, that turns away from good faith bargaining. Through AO 37, the Assembly was trying to get into management while stripping management decisions away from managers.
Hall’s Turn to Pile On
When an audience member asked why unions worked for hourly wages, rather than management salaries, Shanigan said they would be worked to death under salary, pointing to his own overtime experience in Talkeetna.
This was clearly not the answer the audience member was looking for, so she restated her question until Hall responded that wage workers make more money. Meanwhile, many members of management were there because they believed in community service. This caused the questioner to nod her head vigorously.
(That’s why we ask questions, right? So we can affirm what we already believe to be true?)
APDEA seniority rules governed the distribution of overtime, said Hall, adding, “We have no control.” New guys that needed it weren’t getting it, he said.
Hall is obviously discounting how low staffing generates overtime opportunities.
Hall said he had served as a police officer for six years, and it was “mostly sitting in a car.” Downplaying the rigors of public safety work, he said fire fighters worked two days out of five. During their shifts, they could eat, sleep, and exercise in their state of the art facility. Meanwhile, two stations respond to a fire in Anchorage now, and the extra fire staffing costs $1.5 million, said Hall.
Evans said he believed that the Assembly could legally alter municipal code if AO 37 is repealed, rather than having to wait two years post-referendum. Addressing Shanigan’s last best offer argument, Evans said he didn’t like AO 37 Lite, which was just an attempt to avoid $400,000 in ballot related costs. “We gave away the farm,” he said of the vetoed ordinance.
Managed competition had been a disaster in some cities, admitted Evans. While it’s “not a panacea,” he said, it’s something every elected official should consider.
Shanigan agreed that managed competition was one of the good things about AO 37. As for comments Hall and Evans made about wages, Shanigan said those were contract issues. AO 37 was supposed to be about the rules of engagement.
Shanigan said Anchorage was ignoring the national standards of fire safety by operating at 50 percent of recommended staffing. Yet public safety workers are demonized for taking overtime. The municipality accepts a small fee to provide traffic control for private events, said Shanigan, which depend on police overtime. If these events are going over budget, Shanigan argued the city must increase its fee or tell private organizations to contract for private traffic control and acquire the necessary permits.
APDEA should consider a rotation of overtime similar to IAFF, allowed Shanigan.
Evans disputed that he was demonizing workers. I’m upset with public officials, he said. He used insurance as an example; while some private companies offer incentives to workers to not take employer-provided insurance, the municipality gives workers the dollar amount of their coverage.
Hall responded to the accusation on national fire standards, saying every city thinks it needs to be the premier in terms of staffing fire trucks. But it doesn’t mean you actually need that many workers, said Hall.
One of the contributing factors to short staffing was the “nice vacation plan” offered to workers, Hall said. Sometimes, so many employees would be on vacation that overtime would be needed to cover them.
The Assembly’s job is restricted to budgeting and legislation, said Hall. Staffing is not part of the picture, though they could bring in someone temporarily to evaluate it. “Another word I love is ‘outsource,'” he said of the idea, but everyone wanted municipal work to become permanent.
Hall held up a flier paid for by the group Repeal 37. Unions didn’t have anything to argue on AO 37, said Hall, so they scared the public on safety. The Assembly had cut the budget everywhere except public safety, spending “tons of money” on new tasers and fire trucks. “37 has nothing to do with being safe in this community,” Hall argued.
“Yes on 1” signs along the back wall advertised that AO 37 would make Anchorage a “safer city.”
“Yes” Applauds Substitutes
In his closing statement, Shanigan said the referendum on AO 37 reminded him of the August primary referendum on oil tax Senate Bill 21 in that there were no good choices. While AO 37 has some good stuff, he said, “taking it ‘as is’ is not the way forward.” If it is repealed, Shanigan said the public must bring the labor code back to the Assembly to be addressed.
Evans said of Shanigan and Fleener that the “No side would be proud. You probably represented it better than anyone in town, even.” AO 37 puts limits on management, argued Evans. The first-term Assemblyman told the crowd that there was no organized Yes campaign, unlike organized labor, so it was up to audience members to spread the word.
Fleener reminded the audience that AO 37 passed by a single vote and then was repealed twice by the Assembly. Some people believe it undermines safety, he said.
Chambers repeated Evans’ praise of Shanigan and Fleener, saying the “two did a great job for those who didn’t show.”
While people inside discussed the future of municipal workers, outside the library, a nasty collision occurred between an SUV and a taxi cab at the corner of Denali and 40th Avenue.
Police were on the scene, working.