Senator joins lawsuit against new election districts

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2001

Several lawsuits challenging the new election district boundaries developed by the Alaska Redistricting Board have been filed.

Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, who currently represents the Nikiski area in a district linking that peninsula community with South Anchorage, faces a "district-less" future as a result of the plan adopted by the redistricting board on June 18. Ward was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 1982, to the Senate in 1996 and re-elected for another four-year Senate term last year.

A new Senate district proposed by the board separates South Anchorage from the peninsula. Instead, it links Nikiski, North Kenai, Kenai, Soldotna, Ridgeway, K-Beach, Sterling, Funny River Road, Kasilof, Coho, Ninilchik, Happy Valley and Anchor River. Seward, Cooper Landing and Homer are placed in a separate Senate district with Kodiak.

Ward has challenged the proposed redistricting by joining a lawsuit filed by Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, and Speaker of the House Brian Porter, R-Anchorage.

"The issue of whether or not incumbent senators who have four-year terms can be done away with by the redistricting board is included in the suit filed by Rick Halford and Brian Porter," Ward said. "I have had my attorney do a lot of the legal stuff and get it to them."

Ward, who recently relocated to a family residence on the peninsula -- "I'm a North Roader" -- said contesting the redistricting effort wouldn't keep him from the business at hand.

"I was elected to a four-year term," Ward said. "I'm still serving that term. I'm going down (to Juneau) to serve again."

If the board's proposal is ultimately adopted, Ward could find himself going toe-to-toe with Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, who was elected to the Senate in 1994 and re-elected in 1998. Torgerson currently represents Soldotna and other areas of the peninsula including Sterling, Cooper Landing and Seward, and K-Beach Road south to and including Homer.

"I have no idea what Ward is doing," Torgerson said. "Although I would have rather had the district like it was, I don't think the board was totally out of bounds in redrawing our districts here. I don't think we have any grounds to say it's an inappropriate apportionment."

Saying the current election districts are less confusing to voters than the one selected by the board, Torgerson said representing the people from the Kenai and North Kenai area wouldn't pose a problem.

"I have a lot of friends in Kenai and North Kenai," he said. "I've done a lot of work for folks on the peninsula irregardless of boundaries. Where they were from never mattered to me."

According to Elizabeth Snyder, assistant to Gordon Harrison, executive director of the redistricting board, the board's Juneau office had received notice of a lawsuit originating in Valdez and another one from the Delta Junction area.

"The suits had to be filed with the courts," she said. "There could be several out there that we haven't been served with yet."

And, indeed there are, including the one in which Ward is involved. Another lawsuit, filed by Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch and three assembly members on behalf of the Municipality of Anchorage, takes exception to being linked to Valdez rather than the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the combination of neighborhoods in Government Hill and a portion of Muldoon. The communities of Craig, Wasilla and the Aleutians East Borough also filed lawsuits.

Ward joins other Alaska Republicans in charging the redistricting board with favoring Democrats.

"They didn't make any Democrats run against each other," Ward said. "It seems funny that you'd have to make incumbents run again, but not Democrats."

An amendment to the state constitution approved by voters in 1998 requires that two board members be appointed by the governor, one each by the presiding officers of the Senate and the House of Representatives and one by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Realignment of Kenai Peninsula communities -- especially the combination of Kenai and Soldotna -- sparked strong criticism when Redistricting Board chair Vicki Otte and board member Bert Sharp held hearings on the peninsula in May.

"You've divided this up ridiculously," Joe Malatesta testified.

Cautioning that the redistricting would start "range wars," he urged that the board "put politics aside and look at what's good for the citizens. All this smells of politics. All this stinks of politics. It should stay status quo. Even with the representation we have, we can't get anything done down in Juneau."

Speaking to District 8 Republicans at that time, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley said, "Kenai and Soldotna have always feuded on projects. I would feel sorry for a representative trying to represent both cities."

However longstanding that rivalry, it didn't result in any attempts by peninsula communities to alter the redistricting plan selected by the board.

"Everyone has problems or concerns when you redistrict," said Tom Boedeker, Soldotna city manager, of the process that occurs every 10 years following the census.

"But did anybody see something that they felt were legal concerns? Nope. Nobody brought anything up."

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