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Redistricting board conducts hearing

Drawing the lines

Posted: Friday, May 18, 2001

Common threads or lines that separate? It all depends on how the redistricting plans being considered by Alaska's five-member Redistric-ting Board are viewed.

On Wednesday, two members of the board, Vicki Otte, who chairs the board, and Bert Sharp listened to comments from a dozen residents from the central peninsula. Using population counts provided by the census, the board is attempting to divide Alaska's 40 House districts into areas with populations of 15,673.

Two plans being considered combine:

The south side of Kachemak Bay and Kodiak into House District 6;

Homer, Kasilof and Kaliforn-sky Beach into House District 7;

Kenai, Ridgeway and Soldotna into House District 8; and

Nikiski, Sterling, Cooper Landing, Seward, and portions of Homer's East End Road into House District 9.

House District 6 would be combined with House District 40 -- Bristol Bay, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians -- to form Senate District D.

House Districts 7 and 8 would form Senate District E.

House District 9 would combine with House District 5 -- Prince William Sound to Sitka -- to create Senate District C.

"The general concept appears to be valid, but it needs to be tweaked," said Bill Popp, who represents Kenai on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

Pointing to the proposed East End Road and Nikiski connection, Popp said, "They don't share the same interests."

He also voiced concerns that communities on the south side of Kachemak Bay would be disenfranchised by connecting them to Kodiak.

"I like what we have now," said Dorothy Westphal, a 40-year Sterling resident. Like Popp, she questioned the combination of Sterling, Nikiski and East End Road.

"Why would East End Road have anything in common with Nikiski or Sterling?"

Grace Merkes, who represents the Sterling area on the borough assembly, focused on the suggested pairing of Kenai and Soldotna.

"Putting Kenai and Soldotna together is not a good situation," Merkes said. "One representative doesn't seem right."

Instead, Merkes said she favors the current pairing of Soldotna and Sterling.

Clearly stating his preference for district boundaries remaining just as they are, Joe Malatesta, of Kasilof, told Otte and Sharp, "Redistricting will start range wars. You folks are sitting on a time bomb."

Malatesta urged the board to be fair.

"You've divided this up ridiculously. Put politics aside and look at what's good for the citizens. All this smells of politics. All this stinks of politics," he said. " It should stay status quo. Even with the representation we have, we can't get anything done down in Juneau."

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley also urged that current boundaries be maintained.

"If you take away South Kachemak and put it with Kodiak, then you don't need to do anything else to the peninsula," he told the board.

Earlier in the day, Bagley had urged District 8 Republicans to request that the redistricting board leave the Kenai Peninsula voting districts as they are.

"Kenai and Soldotna have always feuded on projects," Bagley said. "I would feel sorry for a representative trying to represent both cities."

Faced with the possibility of a changing District 9, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, told Otte and Sharp that currently he can drive 40 miles to reach either end of his district. The proposed plans, however, would mean a 300- to 400-mile drive from one end to the other.

"Personally, it's not a big problem with the way it's broken up," Chenault said, but he asked that the board consider "defining the edges a little bit better."

On Thursday, Popp said he was "stunned by some of the comments that have been coming out in public testimony. Kenai and Soldotna enjoy a friendly rivalry. I think there are other issues driving this. One is politics, rather than a true feasibility of the two being joined into one district."

As directed by the voters in 1998, two of the redistricting board's five members are selected by the governor, and one each is chosen by the Senate President, the Speaker of the House and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

"I think this is the closest thing we've had since statehood to a balanced approach that is less susceptible to politics," Popp said. "The process was put in place by a ballot initiative, not by political process established by one party or another. I don't know a fairer way we could do it.

"To quote that favorite phrase of any number of politicians, it was put in place by a vote of the people and the will of the people. I don't know how I can complain about the balance of the board because it represents what our government represents."

Kenai Mayor John Williams had his own ideas about the proposed district boundaries.

"The House district to incorporate from Nikiski all the way to Fox River and Fritz Creek, they ought to take the entire population of Fox River and Fritz Creek and swap it for the population on the north end of the Homer House district that lies just south of K-Beach Road and clean that out," he said. "That certainly makes more sense."

Of the Senate seat that would combine Nikiski and Sitka, Williams said, "It is really stupid."

And of the Kenai and Soldotna connection, Williams said, "Whoever the representative is that represents both the cities of Kenai and Soldotna in one House seat district is going to have to have the wisdom of Solomon in order to determine how to justifiably split whatever there is to split between the two cities. Aside from that, it'll certainly promote a lot of fun and perhaps a whole lot of interaction between the two city governments and the citizens of Kenai, which might not be all that bad."

With 10 years experience on Soldotna's city council, Soldotna Vice Mayor Jim Stogsdill said, "I don't know if there's a real rivalry there."

"To tell you the truth, I think that rumors of rivalry between the cities are exaggerated. But the same person trying to do things for the two different cities down in Juneau, I can see where that might be a difficult position," he said.

Although Otte and Sharp left the central peninsula on Wednesday, Otte said it is not too late for the public to submit comments. The board can be reached by telephone at 907-465-4637 or by e-mail at board@alaskaredistricting.org. Written comments can be sent to Alaska Redistricting Board, State Capitol Room 3, Juneau, AK 99801-1182. The board's site on the World Wide Web is www.alaskaredistricting.org.

The board expects to complete its work by June 8.



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