Redistricting trial heats up

Board member accuses redistricting board of hidden agenda

Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2002

ANCHORAGE - A member of the Alaska Redistricting Board said some board members were governed by a hidden agenda put forth by special interest groups in approving a new political map for Alaska.

Michael Lessmeier, a Republican from Juneau who voted against the plan, testified Tuesday in Superior Court. He said the process to come up with the map was flawed and the result was partisan.

Lessmeier said the board did not adequately discuss draft plans that were submitted and gave the public too little time to respond. The board made four plans available for public review.

"I didn't think as a board we should be rubber-stamping plans from special-interest groups," he said.

The board voted 3-2 in favor of the plan in early June.

Board chairwoman Vicki Otte and board members Julian Mason and Leona Okakok voted in favor of the plan. Otte and Mason were appointed by Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles and Okakok was appointed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe, herself a Knowles appointee.

Lessmeier and Bert Sharp, both Republicans, voted against it.

Republicans have criticized the map as partisan because it pits 20 GOP incumbents against each other in the 2002 election. The redistricting plan is facing nine legal challenges. The trial before Judge Mark Rindner is in its second week.

Lessmeier said the board had guidelines to evaluate four different plans. However, it never applied the guidelines to the final plan, he said.

Lessmeier also questioned whether groups intentionally submitted plans at the last minute as a tactical maneuver.

"I don't know why some of those plans weren't submitted until the very end," Lessmeier said.

The approved plan, called the Full Representation Plan, links south Anchorage with Valdez and pairs Prince of Wales Island with Interior villages. Members of the board had expressed problems with both configurations.

Just prior to approving the plan, Otte made a statement about it, Lessmeier said.

"She said, 'Michael, if I don't vote for this plan, I'll lose my job,' " he testified.

It was not clear whether Lessmeier was referring to Otte's job with the Association of ANCSA Regional Corporation Presidents and CEOs or her position on the board.

She is scheduled to testify today.

Lessmeier said there was no way he could approve a map that linked Valdez, with its 4,100 people, to south Anchorage and its more than 15,000 residents.

"For me that wasn't even a close call," he said. "You effectively deny Valdez of representation."

The mayor of Craig testified Monday that the new redistricting map makes it impossible for Prince of Wales Island residents to receive fair representation.

The plan pairs the island and its approximately 4,500 residents with a Senate district that extends all the way to Russian Village on the lower Yukon River and Arctic Village 100 miles north of Fairbanks.

"We don't deal with the people in that area on any basis, any level," Mayor Dennis Watson said. "It created a district that is unprecedented in the United States."

The Craig City Council voted unanimously in June to sue the state over the plan.

Watson said the Senate pairing is problematic because people living in villages along the Yukon River feel Southeast Alaska's chum hatchery is hurting their fishery.

The hatchery, however, has been keeping the Southeast chum salmon fishery afloat, he said.

Prince of Wales Island should be aligned with Ketchikan about 65 miles east, Watson said.

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