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Petersburg fights on in redistricting battle

City drops its most difficult claims; Fairbanks NSB drops all its claims

Posted: October 25, 2011 - 11:54pm

Petersburg is fighting on against the Alaska Redistricting Board’s plan to include the small fishing town in two Juneau-dominated legislative districts, but has dropped some claims it feels are less likely to be successful.

“The City of Petersburg continues to believe that the proposed district is not in the best interest of the community, but we had to kind of pick and choose what was worth pursuing as far as the suit goes,” said Stephen Giesbrecht, Petersburg city manager.

Petersburg officials had previously acknowledged many of the claims would be difficult to win, and expensive even to litigate, following the U.S. Department of Justice’s approval of the plan earlier this month.

Federal approval known as “preclearance” was needed in Alaska under the federal Voting Rights Act, since Alaska has, in the past, disenfranchised Native voters. The federal ruling said the redistricting plan adopted by the board did not diminish Native electoral clout.

Board Chairman John Torgerson, a former Republican senator from Kasilof, called the preclearance decision “validation” of his board’s work.

Following the preclearance ruling, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which was also contesting the redistricting plan, dropped its legal challenge.

Giesbrecht said the Petersburg challenge could still be won, but the small city couldn’t afford to pursue a broad number of claims.

“It’s hard to justify spending that kind of money,” for a city Petersburg’s size, he said. City attorneys estimated the costs could run into six figures, he said.

Petersburg will continue to pursue its legal claim on other grounds, he said.

Giesbrecht said the Alaska Constitution required legislative districts be as compact and contiguous as possible, and share similar socio-economic interests. Petersburg had supported a redistricting plan that grouped it with Sitka and other smaller communities it said share economic interests in fishing and timber harvesting.

“Compactness is still worth trying to get a ruling on, but we had to drop the other stuff,” he said.

Under the new legislative districts proposed by the board, Petersburg would be in Democratic Sen. Dennis Egan’s Senate district, which would now also include Skagway, Gustavus and Tenakee Springs. The House district for the area is currently represented by Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, and includes downtown Juneau and Douglas Island.

“The southern portion of the City and Borough of Juneau is not economically and socially interactive with Petersburg” as is required by the Constitution, the city’s lawsuit says.

The redistricting plan appears to have been designed to maximize Native representation, Petersburg said. It is only appropriate to use racial considerations to the minimum amount necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act, it said.

In addition to the Petersburg lawsuit, at least one private court challenge is also ongoing.

Members of Juneau’s legislative delegation have said they’ll work hard to represent the new portions of their districts if the plan stands, while current legislators Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, have assured Petersburg they’ll continue to do so as well.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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