ANCHORAGE, AK – The Anchorage Assembly voted twice Tuesday night for measures involving the repeal of the city’s controversial labor ordinance, but were met with a pair of instant, prepared veto messages distributed by Mayor Dan Sullivan, who had pushed for passage of the law last spring.
Sullivan vetoed without legal challenge a measure that repealed the labor law outright.
But his other veto — of a measure setting early next year as the date for a referendum on the law — is heading to Superior Court, which will be asked to referee a dispute over whether the city charter bars Sullivan’s move.
The discussion and decisions occurred before a crowd of 150 city workers, union officials, and members of the public during a sometimes-hectic meeting — which at one point led to a warning from Fire Chief Chris Bushue to spectators to maintain order.
The fight over the labor law has been going on since February, when Sullivan, along with two Assembly members, introduced the measure. It passed a month later, leading to a referendum campaign to overturn it by municipal unions, who were angered by provisions limiting raises and rights to strike — among many others.
The repeal effort was led by Assemblyman Dick Traini, who got the support of two members — Adam Trombley and Bill Starr — who had originally voted for passage of the law.
The vote in March came after the Assembly moved to cut off a public hearing on the law with people still waiting to testify, leading to criticism from city workers and residents.
At the time, Trombley said, the Assembly had been aiming for “good government.”
“I think at some point, we failed there,” he said on Tuesday.
Sullivan, who spoke against the repeal before the Assembly’s 7-4 vote, rejected those criticisms, saying that the labor law had gone through seven work sessions and 20 hours of public testimony. He said that the measure, “point by point by point, puts common sense back into our contract negotiations.”
In a comment that drew a derisive laugh from the union-heavy crowd, he added: “This was one of the most open, comprehensive public processes.”
While seven Assembly members ultimately supported the repeal effort, that was still one short of the number needed to overturn Sullivan’s veto. Amy Demboski, Chris Birch, Jennifer Johnston, and Ernie Hall all voted against the repeal.
Hall said that there’s still a “silent majority” that backs the measure, despite the large turnout by unions and residents in support of the repeal. As an example, he cited retirees living on fixed incomes, who he said have pleaded with him not to raise their property taxes. He also compared the compensation of city workers with people who work in the private sector, like at Wal-Mart and Costco.
“I want you to be well-compensated. I truly do,” Hall said to the city workers at the meeting. “But by the same token, there’s a huge portion of the community that are struggling, and having extremely difficult times, and are on the cusp of being homeless.”
Late Tuesday evening, the Assembly had not considered overriding Sullivan’s veto of the repeal, and it was unclear whether it would.
His veto means that the fate of the labor law will probably be decided by city voters at a referendum.
The date of that referendum was the subject of another vote, and another veto — or, at least, an attempt at a veto — by Sullivan on Tuesday.
The Assembly had been considering competing referendum dates after the unions successfully gathered enough signatures this fall to put a repeal of the labor law on a city ballot.
Union-allied members on the Assembly had supported scheduling the referendum along with the city election in April, while the law’s supporters, including Sullivan, preferred to delay a vote until later in 2014, or even pushing it back to early 2015.
By a 6-to-5 vote Tuesday, the Assembly passed a measure setting the date in April 2014. That was met by Sullivan’s pre-printed veto — the validity of which will be tested in court.
Assemblyman Dick Traini said that after a consultation with the Assembly attorney, he believes Sullivan cannot veto the measure because of a section of the city charter that gives the Assembly power to set referendum dates.
Sullivan, however, maintained that he can veto the date — a position that’s backed by Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler.
His veto brought the meeting to a halt, as Hall conferred with Wheeler and Assembly Counsel Julia Tucker.
When the meeting resumed, Hall asked the two attorneys for their respective opinions.
“When the mayor attempts to exercise the veto power to control or manipulate the election date for when a referendum will appear on the ballot, we have a separation of powers problem,” Tucker said. “Separation of powers is a judicially recognized doctrine.”
Wheeler, meanwhile, maintained that Sullivan’s veto power is not restricted unless it’s specifically limited by the city charter. No exception exists in the section of the charter regarding referendums, he said.
Hall said that he would not acknowledge Sullivan’s veto until after a review in Superior Court, which he said he would seek on an expedited basis.