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Redistricting board gets an earful in Anchorage

Patti Epler

For all the talk that the redistricting process underway now in Alaska is complicated and where it stands now is hard to figure out, one thing is clear: Pretty much nobody who testified Monday at an Anchorage hearing likes what the Alaska Redistricting Board has come up with.

Dozens of people packed the Legislative Information Office hearing room to talk about the proposed changes in legislative district boundaries. So many people showed up that the hearing, which started at 2 p.m., ran well past its scheduled 6 p.m. end time.

"I'm quite angered at what's going on," said Clark Croninger, a resident of the small Centennial Village neighborhood in east Anchorage. The board's proposed plan puts the community in an Eagle River House district.

"It seems strange somebody would pick that voter block out and stick it in Eagle River," Croninger said. "Take potholes, for instance. People in Eagle River could give a darn about our potholes and we don’t care about theirs."

In Anchorage at least, many people are concerned that the plan breaks up long-standing communities -- like putting parts of Muldoon in Eagle River. They wonder why it picks small neighborhoods and attaches them to another larger district across town -- like an Airport Heights neighborhood that was cut off and put in with downtown Anchorage.

None of the board members are from Anchorage, and a number of people pointed out that might be a problem because they don’t have a feel for the city and the distinctive character of various parts of town.

Anchorage Assembly member Debbie Ossiander, who lives in Birchwood, urged the board to keep Chugiak and Eagle River together in one district. She pointed out that her community had been split into three districts under the draft plan. "Please try to keep neighborhood that reflect the district identity," she said.

Several people asked the board members how the plans were put together but board chairman John Torgerson said the board wasn't there to answer questions, just to listen to what residents had to say. Board members asked few, if any questions, of anyone testifying.

Another concern raised repeatedly at the hearing was that people had very little time to analyze the detailed maps that make up the board's proposed plan. The maps were released on Friday and people complained that it didn’t seem fair to hold the hearing in the largest city just two days later.

Mike Kenney of South Anchorage pointed out that Anchorage (with more than 280,000 residents) was afforded a four-hour hearing, while Southeast Alaska, with many fewer people, would have 22 hours to tell the board what it thought. Kenney and others urged that the board add at least one more public hearing in Anchorage before adopting a final plan, by early June.

The board plans more than 30 hearings around the state in the next 60 days. It is trying to redraw the boundaries of the state's 40 legislative districts to account for population shifts, an exercise that is done every 10 years after the census. The process is highly charged politically because control of the Legislature is at stake. Ten years ago, critics accused Democrats of skewing the boundaries to favor their party because the board had more Democrats than Republicans. This year, there are four Republicans and one Democrat, and accusations are swirling that the board is trying to force incumbent Democrats into the same districts or create fewer solidly Democratic districts.

But it was Alaska Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich who chastised the board for drafting an Anchorage plan that he called "troubling at best." Ruedrich said the plan ignores local political boundaries such as assembly districts and community council borders, and does not break along natural geographic features like creeks and lakes, as required by the law.

Ruedrich, who has been following the process closely and attended a number of the board meetings in the past week or so when the plan was being drawn up, said he didn’t see the final options until Friday and he was still trying to figure out all the implications.

He said there seemed to be a tendency toward "incumbent eradication" because it put two Republican senators in the same South Anchorage district.

In a short interview outside the meeting, Ruedrich said the board seems to have "walked away from all the borders" that currently exist. The current legislative map is not something Ruedrich likes and he said the board's draft takes that one "and makes it worse."

Early in the redistricting process, Democrats asked the board directly if any members had met privately with Ruedrich, fearing that the longtime party official was getting favorable treatment from the GOP board members.

On Monday it was Ruedrich who asked the board if any of them had met privately with members of Alaskans For Fair Redistricting (AFFR), a coalition of unions, Native organizations and individuals. No one on the board answered his question.

Deborah Williams, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, also testified Monday as a property owner in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and a resident of the downtown Anchorage district. She said she doesn't think the draft plan will pass a constitutional test sure to be applied by the Alaska Supreme Court because some districts do not have contiguous boundaries and the plan does not follow borough boundaries as the court has said in previous cases it must.  

And communities appear to be split apart for no apparent reason, either within House districts or by the way the Senate districts are paired. For instance, Williams said, her property in Mat-Su would be represented by a senator from Ketchikan under one option the board is considering.

The three major political groups -- AFFR, the Democrats and the Republicans -- have submitted detailed plans to the board. So have several cities and the Bush Caucus in the Legislature. The hearing room was lined with maps so the public could weigh in on those as well. Many people testifying at the hearing preferred one of those other proposals over the board's own draft.

Contact Patti Epler at patti@alaskadispatch.com