My Turn: Redistricting earns bad name, legal action

Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2001

I was recently invited to appear on Capital Focus to participate in a discussion about the recently adopted state redistricting plan. Also participating in the discussion were Redistricting Board members Julian Masion and Michael Lessmeier and former Hickel administration Reapportionment Board Member Avrum Gross.

Although this program is an excellent medium to bring this controversy to the public eye, after the bantering and legal jargon had ceased, not enough had been said about the emotional issues that communities like Craig are faced with.

First it is important to understand that our community, Craig, is currently in House District 5 (the Ice-Worm District) and Senate District C. House District 5 was created to increase Southeast village influence in electing legislative representation. It worked; the district 5 communities of Haines and Angoon were able to elect a member of the state House of Representatives. The city of Craig was fortunate enough to tender both a representative and a senator.

Under the state's new redistricting plan this noble cause has denigrated into a politically motivated construct. Our once totally Southeast Ice-Worm District would, if the plan is allowed to go forward, stretch from Metlakatla to Cordova and split Prince of Wales Island in two, placing our port of entry, Hollis, in a Ketchikan district. We would also be paired with a Senate district that would run from Metlakatla north to the Brooks Range. There is no legitimate rational for designing districts in this manner on either human or legal terms. There were other options available that were given little consideration.

Currently Southeast Alaska functions as one community. We meet regularly as Southeast Conference and as the Southeast Conference of Mayors to discuss local and regional issues, and support one another in our endeavors. We have spent years working as a region to improve access and facilities for air and marine travel. The lifeblood of Southeast Alaska, management of our resources such as fish and game, the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the Tongass National Forest, and the waters of the Inside Passage are unique to us. They are prosecuted within the boundaries of Southeast as a region and have no impact on other portions of the state.

What possible connection would the Island communities of Southeast have either geographically, economically or culturally with Cordova, Russian Mission or Holy Cross? The answer is none! What the creation of these new voting districts will do is precipitate the dismembering of Southeast as a community, as I am sure our friends in Prince William Sound, the Lower Yukon River, and Brooks Range areas can foresee in their own regions under this plan. Rather than protect rural representation as some claim this plan does, it will in fact cancel out the benefits created by the Ice-Worm district by combining regions of the state that not only have nothing in common but in some cases have issues that are very much in conflict.

Another issue that illustrates a darker side to this process is the looming question of why, after the board spent many hours determining the ground rules and methodology to develop the new redistricting plan, and spent many hours developing an unbiased plan, did the board in the final minutes of a meeting have three board members discard this effort to endorse the plan submitted by a special interest group. The plan in question was submitted by a shadowy organization calling themselves Alaskans For Fair Redistricting, or AFFR. AFFR's plan was accepted by the three board members without the proper public review or the scrutiny given their own plan. Apparently a double standard has been applied to accepting plans generated outside the board.

AFFR has only given hints as to the membership of their group and to my knowledge no information at all about its financial backing. What little is known about the makeup of this organization raises serious questions about conflicts of interest concerning at least two of the three board members that voted to accept their plan.

In the final analyses the Redistricting Board's adopted plan fragments large cohesive regions and consolidates portions of these regions that have no common interests. The plan has caused great anxiety in small communities and forced them to pay enormous legal fees to fight this injustice. The three board members that have been willing to cater to special interests have given the whole redistricting process a black eye. And finally the plan pits 20 Republican incumbents against each other in the next election and just smacks of political gerrymandering. See you in court!

Dennis Watson is the mayor of Craig.

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