State court judge rules against Petersburg in redistricting

Associated PressDecember 12, 2011 

A state court judge on Monday ruled against the city of Petersburg in its challenge to Alaska's newly drawn political boundaries.

Petersburg argued that the new House District 32 in Southeast Alaska is not "compact" under the state constitution. But Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy, in a written order, said it is compact enough to satisfy constitutional requirements and he found in favor of the Alaska Redistricting Board.

McConahy cited past Alaska Supreme Court decisions, defining compactness as having a small perimeter in relation to the area encompassed and not yielding "bizarre designs."

Petersburg can now ask McConahy to reconsider his ruling, or can take the matter to the high court.

Petersburg's City Manager, Steve Giesbrecht, expressed disappointment with the decision but said he is withholding further comment until he can review the ruling in greater detail and talk with the city's attorney.

The redistricting plan still faces a challenge from Fairbanks-area residents. Trial is set to begin next month.

Petersburg, given limited resources to pursue a challenge, earlier dropped all its claims except those alleging its proposed new House district doesn't meet constitutional standards for compactness.

The city, according to McConahy's ruling, also argued that no deviations for the compactness standard were necessary under federal voting rights law.

The redistricting board maintained the district is compact but it also said the shape of the "influence district" it needed to draw in Southeast Alaska, House District 34, affected the shape of the other districts.

An influence district refers to a district in which an Alaska Native or a Native-backed candidate is likely to be elected. Under the federal voting rights law, the plan cannot weaken the Alaska Native community's ability to elect candidates of their choosing.

The redistricting board needed at least nine districts in which a Native or Native-backed candidate was likely to be elected to maintain the seats held by those candidates after the 2000 redistricting.

The board spent months devising a plan and drawing new lines based on results of the 2010 Census.

Petersburg also said House District 32 contains strange appendages extending across water to incorporate Gustavus and Tenakee Springs. The board said those communities were added to bring the district's total population closer to what's considered the ideal size -- 17,775 people.

The judge said he accepted the board's justification.

The redistricting board's executive director, Taylor Bickford, welcomed McConahy's ruling, calling it validation of the board's work and efforts to balance standards set by the state constitution and federal voting rights act.

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