Anchorage mayor comfortable using his veto

Posted: Tuesday, August 03, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Call him a man standing by his principles, or view him as uncompromising, but Mayor Dan Sullivan, in office a shade more than a year, is already earning a reputation as a mayor comfortable with the veto.

He's used his power to say "no" 10 times to Anchorage Assembly actions, according to the city clerk's office. That's a higher annual rate than the four mayors before him - Matt Claman, Mark Begich, George Wuerch and Rick Mystrom - though no match for Anchorage's veto king, 1988-1994 Mayor Tom Fink. Fink issued an average of almost one veto every two weeks - more than 150 altogether.

"I think his style is more authoritarian-executive," Anchorage Assembly chairman Dick Traini said about Sullivan. "He just decides 'I want to do this. I'm going to do it.' ... It's not right or wrong, just the way we are."

"He's got a philosophy that he's very true to," said Jennifer Johnston, an assembly member who says she agrees with Sullivan's approach to the budget.

No doubt the fact the assembly majority is not politically aligned with the conservative mayor contributes to his veto decisions. The majority on the assembly is more centrist or liberal than the mayor on many issues.

Sullivan could not be reached to talk about the issue.

Political differences are clearly not the whole reason for a substantial number of vetoes coming from the mayor's office over the years. Begich, mayor from 2003 to 2009, faced strong assembly opposition for some of his years, but issued only one veto in 5 1/2 years.

"Begich was all about the deal. Always about making it work," said assemblyman Pat Flynn.

Flynn and some other assembly members said Sullivan doesn't communicate much with the assembly in any informal way. "I can only think of one occasion when I've spoken to the mayor when we weren't already proscribed to be somewhere together," said Flynn. "There's just no informal dialogue."

He doesn't see Sullivan as having a close working relationship with anyone on the assembly. Former assembly member Dan Coffey, who left office in May, was closest to the new mayor. Coffey did not want to comment.

Johnston said sometimes it takes time to get communication going with a new administration. "I think proactive discussion would be very helpful," she said. "When he (Sullivan) does communicate, he's a very good communicator."

Assembly member Harriet Drummond said she finds 10 vetoes in 13 months to be "pretty amazing."

"I wish he would communicate more with us," she said.

Most of Sullivan's vetoes are tied to his efforts to cut city spending and keep a damper on city property taxes. One veto appeared to be technical in nature, to make tax rates match the budget.

Vetoes can be especially effective on budget matters, since the mayor has line item veto power, and can trim what he likes.

Assemblyman Chris Birch said he thinks Sullivan has been "right on the money" with his budget vetoes. "His veto messages have resonated with me for the most part."

Among Sullivan's budget-related vetoes:

In November, he vetoed a measure that would have allowed the maximum annual property tax limit to rise in future years more than Sullivan wanted.

In December, he vetoed measures that would have added two projects to the 2010 capital budget - a street improvement, and an additional ambulance.

In May, he vetoed a proposal to add $200,000 to this year's budget to prepare for a police training academy.

Fink's veto rate remains unrivaled. "When I was mayor we had deep financial problems, and we substantially cut budgets for six years," said Fink. "The assembly was trying to be softer on the people in the cutbacks. I was insistent that we weren't going to raise taxes."

At one point in 1989, the then-assembly eliminated the part of the city code that gave Fink line-item veto power. Fink vetoed the assembly's action taking away his veto.

Rick Mystrom, mayor from 1994 to 2000, once vetoed a whole city budget passed by the assembly and implemented his own version when the assembly was unable to override him.

"There were additions I didn't like," he said in an interview last week.

Two of Sullivan's vetoes were not directly related to finances: his veto in August last year of an ordinance that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender, and a veto on July 20 of an ordinance to make it ethically permissible for city employees to participate in certain charitable fundraising activities while on duty.

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