Valdez to sue over redistricting plan

Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2001

The city of Valdez will file a lawsuit challenging a redistricting plan approved by a state board on Monday.

The Valdez city council voted unanimously Monday night to fight the plan, which would link the Prince William Sound community to a portion of South Anchorage. The seven-member panel directed its city attorney to file suit within 30 days.

Sen. Jerry Ward, an Anchorage Republican who also represents Nikiski, Kenai and parts of Kalifornsky Beach, vowed Tuesday to file a lawsuit to protect his four-year term. Ward is one of seven senators elected last year whose term would be cut short by the proposal. In normal election cycles, half of the 20-member Senate runs every two years. Although Ward and six other senators are not due for another election until 2004, the plan substantially changed their districts, and so a new election is required, according to a report issued by the board.

The change means 17 senators, instead of 10, will face voters next year. The seven senators will run for only two-year terms and face re-election again in 2004. Wrangell Republican Sen. Robin Taylor, Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bettye Davis and Nome Democratic Sen. Donald Olson are the only three senators who will not face re-election in 2002.

Valdez Mayor Bert Cottle said the proposal is unacceptable because 75 percent of residents in the new district would live in Anchorage.

"We will have basically no say in the new district. We will be 25 percent of the vote," Cottle said. "You could win an election without ever getting a Valdez vote."

It is the first of what could be many court challenges to the controversial plan, approved 3-2 on Monday by the Alaska Redistric-ting Board. The GOP has attacked the proposal because it would pit at least 20 Republican incumbents against each other in the next election.

The plan protects Democratic incumbents, noted Bert Sharp, one of two board members appointed to the panel by Republican lawmakers.

Sharp and board member Michael Lessmeier voted against the plan and fired off a report condemning it. Sharp, a former Fairbanks senator, accused the other three board members of rubber-stamping a plan offered by Alaskans For Fair Redistricting, a coalition of regional Native corporations, unions, individuals and environmental groups.

The board's final plan is a revised version of one submitted by AFFR.

"This plan that was adopted was put together by a closely controlled special-interest group," Sharp said. "They have refused to tell us where the money came from. In my best estimates it cost $50,000 to $100,000 to do this plan."

AFFR attorney Myra Munson said she did not know how much the group spent but figured the effort cost tens of thousands of dollars.

She said the money was donated by coalition members and that the final plan was supported by Alaskans across the state.

"I have to say I am absolutely puzzled ... by the characterizing of AFFR as a special-interest group," Munson said. "AFFR is simply an association of citizens and organizations interested in redistricting."

Redistricting Board chair Vicki Otte called the dissension "unfortunate," saying she considered all plans submitted by the public.

"I didn't make my mind up until a day last week when we voted on it. It was not an easy process. We went over it and over it," said Otte, who was appointed by Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat.

The board Monday issued a proclamation outlining its final plan, triggering a 30-day window for opponents to file lawsuits. Valdez apparently is the first city to authorize a lawsuit, although other court battles may follow.

Cottle, the Valdez mayor, said he recently discussed the possibility of legal action with the mayors of Anchorage, Cordova, Wasilla and Delta, but Valdez decided to file its lawsuit separately to encourage a greater number of challenges. The more lawsuits that are filed, the better the chances that one will scuttle the plan, Cottle said.

Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch also is considering legal action, according to his spokesperson. The vice chair of the Alaska Republican Party said it's too soon to say whether the GOP will file a lawsuit.

"I think there is a good possibility that could happen, but it might not," said vice chairman Mike Miller, a former state senator. "We have to sit down and talk as a group. We haven't talked about it."

Kathy Dye is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.

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