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SE district may spur lawsuit

Cordova threatens challenge

Posted: Tuesday, April 24, 2001

The City of Cordova will put up a fight if the Alaska Redistricting Board approves a plan to incorporate the town into a Southeast House district.

Mayor Margy Johnson said Cordova will file a lawsuit, rather than let the state split the town from nearby Valdez. The two Prince William Sound communities share the same House district.

"Our geography links us, our history links us. We simply can't allow this to happen," Johnson said. "Prince William Sound will remain together - we'll take whatever steps are necessary to assure that happens, up to and including a lawsuit."

Valdez also is against the split, although the city council hasn't decided whether it would join a lawsuit, said Valdez Mayor Bert Cottle.

The redistricting board on Monday released more details on four draft plans it adopted last week for public comment. The four proposals suggest two new scenarios for election districts in Southeast - one offered by the board and another by a coalition of regional Native corporations, unions and environmental groups.

The board's plan would separate Sitka from Wrangell and Petersburg to create a new district, including Sitka, Haines, Skagway, Yakutat and Cordova. Wrangell and Petersburg would go to the current House District 5, which would lose Haines and Skagway. A second plan written by the coalition Alaskans For Fair Redistricting would keep Sitka, Wrangell and Petersburg together, but stretch House District 5, known as the Islands District, to include Cordova. The plans do not make major changes to Juneau's two House districts.

A primary goal of both groups was to maintain House District 5, a Native influence district that dropped significantly in population over the past decade. The groups achieved that by incorporating Cordova's population into the Panhandle.

"Guidelines that we had required that we had to maintain the existing number of Native majority and influence districts," said redistricting board Chairwoman Vicki Otte at a press conference Monday.

However, Cordova mayor Johnson said the courts have sided with her town before. The Alaska Supreme Court in 1983 rejected a plan to tie Cordova to a Southeast House district similar to House District 5, which stretches from Prince of Wales Island to Yakutat. The high court threw out the proposal because the state failed to show evidence of significant social and economic interaction between Cordova and the Southeast communities. State law says redistricting boards should strive to pair integrated socioeconomic areas.

The failed plan is very similar to the proposal by Alaskans For Fair Redistricting, which wants Cordova tied to the current House District 5. The group argued in its proposal that circumstances have changed since the high court ruled on the 1980s lawsuit, called Carpenter v. Hammond.

"It is our view that the Carpenter rule should bend," the group wrote in its proposal. "In the 18 years that have intervened since the Carpenter decision, we believe there has been an increase in the actual interaction between Cordova and the Southeast Islands."

The redistricting board plans to take public comment on the plans during the next two months. It could adopt one of the plans intact or choose a revised version, Otte said. The deadline for a final plan is June 17.

Civic leaders across Southeast said they are studying the draft plans, but many expressed some concern, saying they liked the status quo. Sitka city administrator Gary Paxton launched a blistering attack on the board's plan to separate his town from Wrangell and Petersburg and instead tie Sitka to Yakutat, Cordova, Haines and Skagway. The new district would not have an incumbent and Paxton is worried Sitka would be represented by people in places far removed from the town.

"How can you take Sitka, the fifth largest town in the state ... and completely emasculate it?" Paxton asked. "It just doesn't make a lick of sense."

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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