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Assembly, mayor face off in court over veto power

By Bonney Bowman 3:56 PM December 21, 2013

Lawyers on either side argue over the mayor's veto power

ANCHORAGE - The fight between the mayor and the Anchorage Assembly came to a head in court Friday.

Lawyers on either side argued over the mayor’s veto power and when he can, and cannot, use it. The conflict affects when you get to cast your vote on a controversial labor law.

This all started when the assembly passed AO-37, also known as the “Responsible Labor Act.”

It greatly reduces the power of the unions to negotiate their contracts, so union representatives gathered more than 22,000 signatures — forcing a referendum on the law.

The courts upheld the referendum, so the Assembly moved to put it to a vote of the people on the April ballot. The mayor vetoed the election date and that’s when the showdown started.

The question the court will answer: Can the mayor veto the Assembly’s ability to set elections?

“The Alaska Supreme Court has said, quote, ‘it’s sweeping,’” said Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler. “That doesn’t mean it’s unlimited. That doesn’t mean that he can veto in every scenario. But it is a very broad power.”

“Elections are special,” said  Timothy Petumenos, lawyer for the Assembly. “Elections are important and our system placed the responsibility for running elections in 11 people, not one.”

Petumenos said setting an election is routine Assembly business, unlike passing new laws. The mayor can only veto laws, he added.

If the mayor is allowed to veto election dates, he said, what’s to stop him from vetoing every election the Assembly tries to hold?

“Elections, as we said in the argument, are the cornerstone of democracy,”  Petumenos said. “They have to proceed efficiently, on time and in a way that is credible.”

The mayor is bound by the voice of the people because he holds an elected position, Wheeler said. He further argued the veto is part of the checks and balances built into government.

“You see it at the federal level when the president is dealing with Congress,” Wheeler said. “You see it at the state level when the governor is dealing with the legislature and you see it at the local level. All three levels have the veto power and use it.”

The judge is expected to have a ruling by mid-January, but that ruling is unlikely to be the end of this battle.

“If we lose, and we have to appeal to the Supreme Court, I hope we have enough Assembly members willing to take this to the end, to the Supreme Court,” said Assemblyman Dick Traini. “Because I know if the mayor loses in this, he’s going to appeal to the Supreme Court.”

Assembly members say they’ve ordered the clerk to prepare for the referendum to be on the ballot in April.

The mayor wants to wait for an election with higher voter turnout. The assembly said he’s trying to influence the outcome of the vote by hand-picking when Anchorage residents cast their ballots.

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