May 24, 2012 | Vol. 39, No. 21

Alaska Supreme Court orders interim redistricting plan

A divided Alaska Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered an interim redistricting plan due to the fast-approaching 2012 elections. This action prompted the Petersburg City Council to meet in an emergency session on Wednesday to decide the city’s next step in this on-going legal battle.

This means the Redistricting board will have to go back to an earlier map until after the elections. This would put Petersburg back in Proclamation District 32 with downtown Juneau, Douglas, Tenakee Springs, Gustavus and Skagway. The district is currently represented by Democrat Beth Kerttula.

Petersburg has spent $39,000 in legal fees asking the court to compel the board to combine it with the more similar communities of Sitka and Wrangell.

The court on Tuesday said the reason for its decision was that, “because of the numerous objections that this court has received [to the May 15 plan]…there is a risk that the United States Department of Justice would decline to pre-clear [the May 15 Southeast districts] under the Voting Rights Act. Notice of the failure of the Department of Justice to pre-clear the new districts would come so late in the 2012 election cycle that a great disruption to the election process would result.”

The court, however, reaffirmed its earlier decision that the board did not comply with the court’s March 14, 2012 order in its retaining the Proclamation Plan districting of Southeast, and said its final order “will contain a discussion of and directions concerning the reconfiguration of the Southeast districts…” This means Petersburg may be placed in a district that is more compliant with the Alaska Constitution for the 2014 and subsequent elections.

In response to the court’s decisions, the City Council voted to file a Motion for Reconsideration.

Petersburg City Attorney Tom Klinkner told the council the new plan raises three issues for the court. “One is that Bill Thomas would be paired with another incumbent and they don’t like that, another is the redistricting apparently eliminates any district that has more than 30 percent Native population and, they don’t like that, and the third they thought that at least one district should include Yakutat,” Klinkner said.

Petersburg had previously argued that the Voting Rights Act doesn’t require that there be a district with 30 percent Native voting age population. The only thing the act requires is that the state not lose a district that is large enough to elect a representative of their choice, 30 percent is not large enough that they could do that, Klinker said.

The plan that Petersburg had presented to the Superior Court last fall was one that did preserve a 30 percent over-voting age district in Southeast.

Klinkner told the council that this was the only plan that would “get any traction with the Justice Department.”

“It would be going back to the court and saying ‘Hey, here’s a way out. Here’s a way that preserves the Alaska Constitution as far as redistricting in Southeast. And it presents a plan that is not vulnerable to Justice Department objections,” Klinker said.

“If you are going to have districts that are compact, then you are going to have to pair Senator Bill Thomas with another incumbent. But that’s not a strong Voting Rights Act issue, if it’s an issue at all,” he added.

The city has 10 days to file a motion in this case.

“The City of Petersburg is disappointed that the Redistricting Board continues to challenge the courts on redrawing the lines. From our perspective, time would be better spent redoing the plan as instructed by the Superior Court and the earlier Supreme Court ruling. Appealing this latest judicial decision to the Supreme Court just makes it harder for the State of Alaska Elections Division, the legislators up for reelection, and the citizens of Alaska,” City Manager Steve Giesbrecht said in a statement. He was not in attendance at the meeting.

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