Redistricting board begins crafting court-ordered plan

Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Five members of the state's Redistricting Board began the work of devising a new reapportionment map on Friday to satisfy a court order.

Board Chairwoman Vicki Otte expects the plan to be finished in a matter of days in an attempt to meet a June 1 candidates' filing deadline.

''They are not leaving here until it's done,'' Otte said.

Over the next few days the board will attempt to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of legislative districts that each have political ramifications that will last for years.

In March, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that more than half of the 40 House districts are unconstitutional and directed the board to make changes.

The state high court ruled that all 17 Anchorage districts were unequal in population and several other districts violated various rules on compactness or socio-economic compatibility

That map -- offered by a lobbying group with ties to Alaska Natives, environmental and labor groups -- sparked nine lawsuits challenging the plan in Anchorage Superior Court. The lobbying group is called Alaskans for Fair Redistricting.

Republicans roundly criticized the map as ''blatantly partisan'' because it pitted 20 GOP incumbents against each other in the Aug. 27 primary.

Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich was on hand for Friday's board meeting. Ruedrich submitted a map for the board to consider.

''We hope we get a fair plan, that's why we went to court to litigate. That's why we are here to try to ensure that the plan is fair and equitable to all Alaskans,'' Ruedrich said.

The board is considering 19 different proposed maps submitted both by Redistricting Board staff and special interests.

Alaskans for Fair Redistricting submitted a proposed map as did Julian Mason, a board member appointed by Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles.

The Republican Party map would pit several incumbents against each other, Ruedrich said. But he said any plan that is submitted is likely to pit incumbents against each other.

Ruedrich's plan would pit Republican House Speaker Brian Porter against Democrat Sharon Cissna, Republican Reps. Joe Green and Kevin Meyer and Republican Reps. Andrew Halcro and Norman Rokeberg in Anchorage.

Rep. James Coghill, R-North Pole, would also be in the same legislative district as House Majority Leader Jeannette James, R-North Pole, under the plan.

''Reapportionment is about change. If there was no change, the current districts would work,'' Ruedrich said.

Federal law requires states to redraw legislative boundaries every 10 years following a U.S. Census. Alaska has to make accommodations for 40 House seats -- ideally containing 15,673 voting-age people -- within 20 Senate seats.

Alaska has never had a redistricting map survive a court challenge since statehood. In previous years, the governor appointed the state's Redistricting Board. But in 1998 voters approved a Republican amendment to the constitution to allow the Legislature to appoint members to the Redistricting Board.

Under the change, the governor appoints two members and the House and Senate appoint one member each. The chief justice of the state Supreme Court appoints the fifth member.

The plan offered by Alaskans for Fair Redistricting was approved on a 3-2 vote of the board. The two Republican members voted against the plan.

Board members appeared equally split Friday on what approach should be taken to fix the map.

Mason said small changes could be made to boundaries on the map while preserving the overall plan.

Michael Lessmeier, a Republican appointee to the board, said the map needs drastic changes to pass muster with the courts. Lessmeier said the question of which district Valdez ultimately is located within will cause a ripple effect for the rest of the state.

The plan struck down by the state court put Valdez in a district with Anchorage. Valdez city officials protested the inclusion through a lawsuit.

''I would be very surprised to find us making changes around the perimeters,'' Lessmeier said.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner must approve any plan produced by the board. Rindner's decision could be appealed to the state Supreme Court, said Gordon Harrison, executive director of the board.

The Redistricting Board must complete its work before the June 1 deadline for candidates to file for election. But any plan also must be approved by the Justice Department, a process that can take up to 60 days.

A meeting at the Redistricting Board office is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday.

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