Palin wants open vote on Senate seat

Governor questions constitutionality of state's appointment law, says her pick stands

Posted: Sunday, April 05, 2009

Gov. Sarah Palin is backing away from her demand that Republican senators have a say in who represents Juneau in the Alaska Senate, but is still demanding a public vote on her appointment to replace former Democratic Sen. Kim Elton.

"The Senate can decide for itself who participates in the vote, I am simply requesting that the vote be done in public," she said late Friday.

That could give Palin another chance at appointing legislative aide Tim Grussendorf to the Juneau Senate seat. Despite the support of powerful Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, most other Democratic senators did not support Grussendorf's appointment.

Palin got little support from Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, for the idea of a Republican role in the confirmation of Grussendorf.

Stevens said he would instead follow state law, which leaves confirmation of the appointment up to Senate Democrats.

"I don't have anything to do with that, I'm a Republican and that's a Democratic decision," he said.

Palin said there are doubts of the constitutionality of the appointment law, which has been used for most of the state's history. It was most recently used last year when Palin accepted the confirmation of her appointment of Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, to the Legislature without objection.

Democratic Sens. Hollis French and Bill Wielechowski, both of Anchorage, denounced that action on the Senate floor Friday, saying it was only fair for the same party to appoint a replacement senator.

"It's about protecting the will of the community as it was expressed in the last election," French said.

Also Friday, Palin met with Juneau Democratic leaders who had the same message.

"I told her that it was pretty clear in the law that it was the Senate Democrats," said Kim Metcalfe, Juneau Democratic chair, after her meeting with Palin.

Palin sent a letter to Stevens Thursday evening saying her appointment of Grussendorf still stood, calling Wednesday's rejection by Democratic senators invalid.

Palin's letter came just hours after telling the Empire that she was considering other applicants, including the Democrats' top choice, Rep. Beth Kerttula.

By Friday evening, Palin had reversed course again, agreeing to a confirmation decision by Democrats only. She is continuing a public vote, however.

The Senate Democrats' decision Wednesday was made behind closed doors, in apparent violation of the state's Open Meetings Law which requires most decisions of governmental bodies to be made in public.

Senior Democrat Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, organized the meeting and defended its closed-door status.

He likened it to a city assembly holding an executive session to decide whether to hire or fire a manager.

"It's like a personnel issue for our group, the discussion goes to the reputation of an individual," he said.

In the case of a municipal decision, a final vote would be taken in public. That didn't happen in this case, and Ellis declined to say whether a vote was taken at all.

Ellis was the only Democratic senator to speak with the press after the closed-door meeting, twice repeating the statement "there is not adequate support to seat Mr. Grussendorf this time."

A public vote could be difficult for some senators who would not want to cross the powerful budget-writer Hoffman in public.

Ellis said traditionally appointment confirmation votes are done in closed sessions. Few votes have been as controversial as the Grussendorf vote, however.

Rep. Keller said he's not even sure how his vote was done, as the Legislature was not in session at the time.

"I think it was a telephone vote. There wasn't a floor session because it happened in July and I started immediately," he said.

Keller, a Republican, replaced former Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, after he resigned to fight corruption charges.

Palin said Friday her appointment of Grussendorf stands because the Senate rejection was not done in public.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski said Palin's demand for Republican involvement in appointing a senator for Juneau was contrary to the law, as was the governor not acknowledging the right of the Senate rejection of Grussendorf. Under law Palin now has 10 days from the rejection to make another appointment.

"If that appointment does not come, that will be another breach of the law," Wielechowski said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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