Valdez considers lawsuit over state redistricting plan

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2001

The city of Cordova is backing away from suing the state over a final redistricting plan announced Saturday, but the controversial proposal is sparking talk of a lawsuit in Valdez.

The Alaska Redistricting Board adopted a proposal in its final plan to tie Cordova to Southeast's House District 5, known as the Islands District. Although Cordova Mayor Margie Johnson had threatened a lawsuit if the board approved a plan separating Cordova from Valdez, today she said the city council still is debating whether to launch a court battle.

"We're a small town and it's like fighting city hall. We don't have the money to fight state government," said Johnson, who estimated a lawsuit would cost the Prince William Sound community about $30,000.

Meanwhile, the final plan has irked some Valdez political leaders, particularly Rep. John Harris, a Valdez Republican who serves in the state House. The plan would link Valdez to a portion of south Anchorage, pitting Harris against fellow Republican Rep. Con Bunde of Anchorage in the next election.

Although the Valdez City Council has not decided whether to fight the plan in court, Harris noted he would support such a lawsuit, saying the larger Anchorage population in that proposed district would dominate the interests of Valdez.

"What it means is that the chances of somebody from Valdez getting elected are very slim, if not impossible," Harris said.

Valdez Mayor Bert Cottle called the plan "terrible" and said the city council will bring up the possibility of a lawsuit at its next meeting June 18.

"There's no reason we should be in with South Anchorage. We'd have very limited representation. Geographically it doesn't make sense," said Cottle, noting Valdez likely would join in a lawsuit with other municipalities, which he declined to name.

Meanwhile, redistricting board member Michael Lessmeier, who strenuously opposed adoption of the final plan, called it a sad day for the state. Lessmeier was one of two people appointed to the five-member board by Republicans, while the other three were considered Democratic picks. Lessmeier said the final plan was driven by politics.

"I think fundamentally what this final plan does is further a political agenda to basically get rid of as many Republican incumbents as possible," said Lessmeier, a Juneau attorney.

Lessmeier said the final plan pits at least eight Republican incumbents against each other for four seats in Anchorage. In addition to the Harris-Bunde district, the proposal would pit Republicans Rep. Lesil McGuire against Rep. Joe Green, Rep. Andrew Halcro against Rep. Norman Rokeberg, and Rep. Lisa Murkowski against Rep. Eldon Mulder, said Lessmeier, noting he did not have all the information immediately available. The Alaska Redistricting Board staff also did not have an analysis of how the plan would affect incumbents.

Lessmeier said the plan also would pit Republicans Rep. Fred Dyson and Rep. Pete Kott, both of Eagle River, against each other and would eliminate the Richardson Highway district, which encompasses dozens of towns, including Glennallen, Valdez, Delta Junction, Fort Greely and Big Delta.

"The things that were done are just really so contrary to any notion of fairness that it's hard for me accept," Lessmeier said.

The plan was defended by Alaskans For Fair Redistricting, a coalition of regional Native corporations, unions and environmental groups. Although some board members accused others of merely accepting a plan rubber-stamped by AFFR, coalition attorney Myra Munson said the final plan was endorsed by many people, including six members of the Anchorage Assembly. She said it wasn't the group's intention to shift power to Democrats and that the redistricting board should not weigh a proposal's effect on incumbents when choosing a final plan.

"Incumbents play an important role in the legislative process, but an incumbent doesn't have a right to win an election," said Munson, adding she was "shocked" by the criticisms leveled by some board members.

Angoon Democrat Rep. Al Kookesh, who represents House District 5, endorsed the proposal tying Southeast to Cordova. The plan also pairs his district with the Interior Rivers House district to form a Senate district, represented by Rampart Democrat Sen. Georgianna Lincoln.

"I think that probably makes a lot more sense than having to jump all the way to Kodiak," Kookesh said, referring to his district's current pairing with a House district in Kodiak.

Meanwhile, the board staff is expected to release more details on the plan by June 18. Then people will have 30 days to file any lawsuits, said Gordon Harrison, executive director for the Alaska Redistricting Board. Staff also has to submit the plan to the U.S. Justice Department, which must approve it. The plan, unless blocked, will be used for the 2002 elections.

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



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