Kenai-Soldotna district a redistricting idea whose time has come

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

Pop quiz: Do you know what legislative dis-trict you live in? Do you know who represents you in the Alaska Senate and the Alaska House of Representatives? Do the words "reapportionment" and "redistricting" mean anything to you?

The reason we ask: The Alaska Redistricting Board is preparing to wrap up its work redrawing the state's election districts.

The "redistricting" or "reapportionment" process occurs every decade, after the federal census, to ensure that the districts are equal in population. But population is only one consideration. The redistricting plan must meet both state and federal standards, which also include:

Being compact and contiguous;

Incorporating integrated socio-economic areas; and

Not discriminating against racial minorities.

Alaska's massive size, wide open spaces, communities not accessible by road, barriers of water and mountains, and distances between population centers add some definite challenges to the board's mandate.

There's not a plan that the board -- or anyone else -- could come up with that would not contain elements to criticize.

Not surprisingly, the board has redrawn the Kenai Peninsula's legislative districts. And not surprisingly, the proposals have drawn criticism. The plans being considered combine:

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

Homer, Kasilof and Kalifornsky Beach into House District 7;

Kenai, Ridgeway and Soldotna into House District 8;

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

House Districts 6 and 40 (Bristol Bay, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians) to form Senate District D;

House Districts 7 and 8 to form Senate District E;

House Districts 9 and 5 (Prince William Sound to Sitka) to form Senate District C.

In testimony before the board last month Republicans and some peninsula officials argued to keep the legislative districts as they currently are.

Population shifts and the board's mandate likely make that impossible.

There are some valid questions about the board's plans, however, including: What do East End Road and Nikiski have in common? Does it make sense to put Nikiski and Sitka in the same Senate district? For that matter, does it make sense to pair Nikiski with South Anchorage, as is now the case? Not to poke fun at the North Road, but what does Nikiski have in common with any community?

The proposed House District 9, however, could be considered a political nightmare. Currently, the district is about a 40-minute drive end to end. The new district would mean a 300- to 400-mile drive from end to end. Other legislative districts around the state also encompass vast areas, most of which can't be driven at all.

One surprising criticism that's been leveled at the board's proposal is the pairing of Kenai and Soldotna. Opponents of the plan cite the rivalry and feuding between the two communities as the reason they should not be served by a single legislator.

The pairing of the twin cities in favor of the status quo, however, should not be so easily dismissed. In fact, it's a real strength of the board's plans.

The boundaries that create the communities of Soldotna and Kenai are artificial limits for residents. It's common for residents to live in one city and work in another. They shop in both communities. They play in both communities. What one community doesn't have, the other does.

A House district that combined Kenai and Soldotna would help erase the phony barriers that exist now. Rather than making it more difficult for a legislator to get things done, more could be accomplished by Soldotna and Kenai working together. A single legislator serving both communities would be a powerful tool in helping put people above politics. Rather than competition for dollars and projects, a combined Kenai-Soldotna legislative district would promote cooperation that would best meet the needs of the people of the central peninsula.

Over the past decade or so, the two cities have made great strides in working together -- so much so that rumors of the rivalry between the communities now seem greatly exaggerated. Being united in a single House district would help cement the relationship.

Without a doubt, some of the proposals before the redistricting board seem a little far-fetched. The one uniting Soldotna and Kenai, however, is not one of them. The proposal may not make sense from a political point of view, but it's a sound one from the perspective of best serving the needs of the people.

Other parts of the plans before the redistricting board may need tweaking. Putting Kenai and Soldotna in one district, however, is visionary -- an opportunity too good to pass up. We hope pressure from the politicos won't squelch the idea.

Although the board is scheduled to meet this week, it is not too late for the public to comment. The board's phone number is (907) 465-4637. Comments can be e-mailed to board@alaskaredistricting.org. The board's World Wide Web site is www.alaskaredistricting.org.



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