The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a petition seeking to put a controversial labor law to a public vote.
The labor ordinance, called by Mayor Dan Sullivan the “Responsible Labor Act” but refereed to by petition sponsors as simply “AO-37,” passed by the Anchorage Assembly in March of 2013 by a single vote.
The ordinance set numerous new rules for how city unions figure out pay and seniority, streamlined a multitude of health and retirement plans for union employees, removed the union’s right to strike, and opened up some city services to private contractors.
A pro-union petition drive survived a superior court battle of its own in August to collect over 22,000 signatures and put the fate of the labor ordinance in front of voters. The decision was appealed by municipal attorneys to the Alaska Supreme Court. Briefs were delivered months ago and oral arguments were given earlier this week.
In the order delivered Friday, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s August ruling that allows the petition putting AO-37 to a public vote to go forward.
"I think what's happening here is we're crossing the line between political desires, and what's right, and what the law says the citizens are allowed to do," said Gerard Asselin, an appellee in the case.
A full opinion of from the justices is expected at a later date. The decision comes two days after both sides presented arguments before the court.
"I appreciate that this decision was a difficult one to make for the Supreme Court. Their ruling will help provide some certainty in an otherwise murky area of law, and will allow voters to decide on whether fiscal and policy guidance on labor relations should be in the hands of the Municipal Assembly or directed by special interests," Mayor Dan Sullivan said in a statement emailed to Channel 2 Friday.
City attorneys asserted before both the superior and supreme courts that the petition attempted to put “administrative” issues dealing with things like employee pay in front of voters. They argued that administrative issues were not eligible for the public referendum process.
The court’s decision is “a complete win for the (petition) sponsors,” said Susan Orlansky, counsel for the petitioners. She said the decision shows “the (municipality) was wrong to deny the petition, and that the subject is appropriate for the ballot.”
Phones calls to Michael Gatti, counsel for the city in the Supreme Court hearing, were not returned Friday.
Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler told Channel 2 he expected a quick ruling from the high court since ballots for a potential repeal election must be finalized in a month.
With the legality of the petition settled, the question now is just when the public will vote on the labor ordinance.
In October, Sullivan vetoed a 6-5 vote by the Anchorage Assembly that set an April date for the vote. The question of the mayor’s veto power on a matter affecting dates for a vote is embroiled in a court case of its own, and went before superior court in December.
The deadline to finalize the April ballot is January 28.