The attempt to fill Juneau's open state Senate seat has become more about the process and less about the appointees or the capital city's need for representation. This contentious battle has been reduced from what should have been a reasonable and rational process to a sandbox death match.
Juneau Democratic leaders and Gov. Sarah Palin have spent the past seven weeks pitted in a battle of wills, with each side accusing the other of breaking Alaska's long-standing tradition in how Legislative vacancies are filled. Now, Alaskans are seeing just how easily a reliance on tradition and gentlemen's agreements can lead to legal squabbles and political inaction.
It's clear now that Juneau will have no representation in the Senate this legislative session. Palin has until April 20 - the day after the session ends - to submit the name of another nominee for the seat recently vacated by former Sen. Kim Elton. Based on how she's handled the matter up to this point, the smart money around town knows she'll make the remainder of this process just as painful as she can for all involved.
In the meantime, important bills need attention on the Senate floor, among them the proposal to construct a large office building on the Juneau waterfront. As things stand now, measures such as these will be decided in the absence of a local advocate in the Senate, and that means Juneau is likely to lose jobs and projects that surely would stimulate the local economy.
Palin was rightfully angered when Juneau Democrats tried to force her hand by submitting only one nominee, Rep. Beth Kerttula, to fill Elton's seat, rather than giving the governor three candidates to choose from. When Palin asked for a list of three, Juneau Dems responded by giving her four names to choose from, a compromise and a gesture of good faith that she would pick one of them.
Or so we thought.
Instead, Palin's actions have been self-serving at best. She attempted to force legislative aide Tim Grussendorf into the Senate, going so far as to asking Republican senators to vote on his appointment. Her second pick, Joe Nelson, was made public as a footnote in a letter criticizing Senate Democrats for their closed-door meetings.
Palin also has brought into question the constitutionality of the appointment law, which has been used for most of the state's history. It was used in 2007, when Palin accepted the confirmation of her appointment of Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, to the Legislature without objection. That confirmation, however, occurred out of session and behind closed doors.
"She didn't question the law at that time," Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, told KTUU of Keller's appointment. "It's only now that her appointee is being rejected that she is questioning the law."
The fact remains that neither Grussendorf nor Nelson was on the Juneau Democrats' short list of candidates. Why Palin thinks Kerttula, Jeff Bush, Sally Smith and Mike Miller are unfit for the position has not been addressed, but it needs to be. She also should justify future appointments in terms much more substantive and meaningful than a candidate "clearly loves Alaska," as she said of Nelson.
We also can't ignore how Senate Democrats' secret, unannounced meetings are equally counterproductive to this whole process. At least twice, Democratic senators have violated the state's open meetings law with no consequences beyond a gubernatorial tongue-lashing. All these factors expose the dire need for a more clearly defined process for filling such vacancies.
When lawmakers are finished naming a state dog and approving the creation of Iditarod license plates - and not voting in order to get a pay increase - they need to address the process for filling legislative vacancies. Maybe then the governor and lawmakers will be able to play nicely and productively in the sandbox on the hill.
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