Election district suits filed

Craig is only Southeast community challenging redistricting plan so far

Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2001

At least three towns and one borough have followed through on threats to challenge a redistricting plan the GOP calls anti-Republican.

The cities of Craig, Valdez and Delta Junction, plus the Aleutians East Borough, have filed lawsuits alleging a plan approved 3-2 by the Alaska Redistricting Board in June violates state and federal laws that govern how election districts are drawn. Today is the deadline to file lawsuits before the board sends its plan to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval.

Craig, on Prince of Wales Island near Ketchikan, is the only Southeast community so far to file a legal challenge. Craig currently is in House District 5, which starts at the southern tip of the Panhandle and snakes north to Yakutat.

Although the plan would keep Craig in House District 5, known as the Iceworm or Islands district, it would extend the boundaries north to include Cordova, Tatitlek and Chenega on Prince William Sound. That's a violation of the state constitution, which requires districts to be compact and to include areas that are socially and economically integrated, the lawsuit said.

"The City of Craig does not share educational systems, health care or commercial centers with the communities of Prince William Sound," according to the lawsuit, filed in Ketchikan Superior Court.

Craig's complaint also objected to the plan because it would divide communities on Prince of Wales Island into two House districts. The lawsuit also challenged the board's plan to put Craig in a Senate district that would span Southeast and include a vast horseshoe-shaped area stretching from the edge of the Kenai Peninsula Borough north to Arctic Village, then south to the top of the Panhandle.

The board's plan "joins dissimilar areas enormous distances apart, which dilutes the political effectiveness of the citizens of the City of Craig," according to the lawsuit.

The Valdez lawsuit called the election district plan irrational and arbitrary, alleging it violates the state constitution. Valdez has spent millions of dollars establishing itself as a gateway to the Interior, but the board's plan would separate the city from Interior towns in its current district and pair it with south Anchorage, the lawsuit said.

"The result is a wholly irrational combination of entirely socio-economically diverse populations," according to the lawsuit, which also cited an effort by Valdez and Interior cities to promote construction of a natural gasline as reason to keep them in the same legislative district.

Craig, Valdez, Delta Junction and the Aleutians East Borough faulted the board for adopting a proposal crafted by a private group called Alaskans For Fair Redistricting and said the panel failed to gather public comment on the plan. Valdez and the Aleutians East Borough also alleged the board conducted deliberations in secret and violated the state Open Meetings Act, resulting in an illegal reapportionment plan that should be voided.

Three members of the five-member redistricting board have defended the plan, saying changes in district lines had to be made to account for shifting population throughout the state. Election districts are redrawn every 10 years as the U.S. Census Bureau releases revised population estimates. As lines were moved, that caused a ripple effect in other areas of the state, according to the plan's supporters.

Vicki Otte, chairwoman of the board, said the lawsuits were not unexpected.

"There has never been a redistricting without a lawsuit, and we knew going into it that there were going to be people that were unhappy," Otte said.

The GOP has condemned the plan because it would pit 20 Republican incumbents against each other, but no Democrats. Anchorage attorney Ken Jacobus, a Republican activist, said he represents a group of citizens in Anchorage that plans to challenge the map. Jacobus also drafted Delta Junction's lawsuit.

Other challenges likely will trickle in before today's deadline closes. The city of Wasilla planned to file a lawsuit as did the city of Cordova, which allocated $35,000 for a legal challenge.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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