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Showdown in Anchorage Superior Court over city elections

By Rhonda McBride 2:15 PM December 20, 2013

Assembly members will hear oral arguments on A0-37

ANCHORAGE – A number of Anchorage Assembly members carved out Friday afternoon to sit in an Anchorage courtroom and hear oral arguments on Anchorage Ordinance 37, also known as a the “Responsible Labor Act.”

Assembly Chairman Ernie Hall said he hopes it sheds light on the Assembly’s authority to schedule elections, as outlined in the city charter — which Mayor Dan Sullivan is challenging. Another issue Hall would like the court to address is whether the mayor is using his veto power too broadly.

The case, Daniel A. Sullivan vs. the Anchorage Municipal Assembly, will be heard by Anchorage Superior Court Judge Erin Marston. It will decide whether the mayor had the authority to veto the Assembly’s decision to set an election for a referendum on AO-37 for next April.

In March, the Assembly narrowly approved the measure, which unions call anti-labor — mainly because it takes away their right to strike. By September, unions had collected more than 22,000 signatures to repeal the measure, far above the required 7,124 signatures.

Sullivan objected to the date set by the Assembly because he feels April elections are not well attended. Hall said the majority of the Assembly felt, under the city charter, they have an obligation to put the referendum on the ballot by the next city election, or schedule a special election in a timely fashion.

Assembly member Tim Steele calls this a “separation of powers” issue, crucial to the function of government, because it provides for checks and balances.

The same charter that gives the Assembly the power to set elections creates a strong mayoral form of government. Steele is hoping the court will provide clarification on whether the mayor is abusing his authority.

Assembly member Dick Traini, who has served on the Assembly for 14 years, doesn’t think he’s ever seen a mayor push the envelope as much as much as Sullivan has.

He believes the mayor has crossed the line.

“He is interjecting himself into the administrative function of the Assembly,” Traini said. “And that’s inappropriate. It is an administrative function to be able to pick a date for an election. I’ve never seen a mayor act this way.”

Hall worries these boundaries blurred between the legislative and executive branches will continue to be blurred. He said Tuesday’s Anchorage Assembly meeting was a good example. The mayor was wrong to veto a measure during the tennis court debate, he said, even before the Assembly had decided the matter.

Traini agrees and believes the mayor acted improperly by jumping into a legislative matter before it was concluded.

Sullivan believes the court will rule in his favor, based on the research of the municipal attorney.

“Sometimes this is why it’s good to go to court, because it’s the only way we can bring closure to these kind of issues,” Sullivan said.

Both Sullivan supporters and opponents credit him for his creativity in using the political process to accomplish his goals. City attorneys argue that the mayor is simply carrying out the vision in the city charter for a strong mayoral government.

Oral arguments begin at 3:00 p.m. Friday in the Courtroom 302 at the Nesbett Courthouse.

The court is not expected to reach a decision today. The Assembly is hoping a decision will come in time to put the referendum on the April ballot.

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