A persistent legal battle over redistricting changes to Fairbanks legislative seats is reopening the hopes Petersburg has for remaining part of Sitka-based, rather than Juneau-dominated, House and Senate districts.
“Our council is pretty emphatic that we’d like to stick with our current districts,” said Kathy O’Rear, city clerk for Petersburg.
Growing population outside Southeast means districts locally are expanding. For Juneau, that means several new communities are being joined to the capital city, including Petersburg, Gustavus, Tenakee Springs and Skagway.
For Petersburg, that means they will be a small part of its new Juneau-dominated district, where it had once been a larger part of a House district containing Wrangell and Sitka, represented by Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell.
Powerful Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, represents Petersburg’s current Senate district, which also contains Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island.
As the legal battles played out up north, Petersburg saw its fading hopes to avoid a forced marriage to Juneau resurrected recently.
Following Alaska Supreme Court orders for widespread changes to the Alaska Redistricting Board’s proposed election map, Petersburg on April 16 filed a second complaint attempting to get the proposed plan overturned.
O’Rear said the city has not proposed its own map, but several others proposed by other groups are available to chose from.
“We think our residents have a lot more in common with Sitka and other Southeast communities,” she said.
The court told the Redistricting Board to use what’s known as the “Hickel process” to balance competing Alaska Constitution and federal Voting Rights Act goals of creating adequate Native voting districts.
The Hickel process is named after the outcome of the state’s landmark redistricting case, Hickel vs. Southeast Conference, which settled the contentious 1990 redistricting fight.
While districts elsewhere have been changed, the Southeast districts have remained the same despite the order to use the Hickel process.
Taylor Bickford, the Board’s executive director, said that was intentional and done on the advice of its legal counsel.
“In furtherance of the “Hickel process”, the Board’s legal counsel advised against revisiting the Southeast districts,” Bickford said.
There’s no need to redraw Southeast districts that have already been determined to be constitutional by a court, Bickford said, which is what the board is arguing to the Supreme Court.
Though Petersburg is seeking to use that opening to get its district boundaries redrawn, O’Rear said she couldn’t speculate on whether they’d be successful.
She did note that Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, who will be Petersburg’s legislators under the current proposal, have been active already in Petersburg.
“Egan and Kerttula have been very good with the city this year in keeping in contact with us,” O’Rear said, along with their current representatives.
“I’ve planned to represent Petersburg, Gustavus, Skagway and Tenakee Springs for a long time, it’s a beautiful area with great people,” Kerttula said.
One other possible option, originally rejected by the Supreme Court but now being discussed, is to continue to use the existing districts for one more election cycle and then use the next two years to draw final boundaries.
“We’re all going to have to wait and see what the Supreme Court does, and hope they do it soon,” she said.
State elections officials have said they needed a decision by May 14. The court Monday issued a new speeded up schedule for a decision that holds out the possibility of meeting that deadline.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.