While witness after witness agreed that it's no easy task to divide Alaska into 40 legislative districts that conform to the state Constitution, the Alaska Redistricting Board's first hearing this year had no shortage of critics who said it was failing.
For the hearing, the board produced seven possible statewide maps without saying which it preferred or describing its rationale for why it placed district lines where it did. At least four privately generated maps, with multiple revisions, were also up for comment, and another was offered during testimony.
That prompted Lois Epstein, testifying as "an interested citizen," to express frustration over the lack of information.
"When I arrived here today, I asked two members of the board what the methodology was to develop the seven maps presented," she testified. "I was told the (Alaska) Constitution was the basis of the maps' development and that the Constitution can have different interpretations. I asked why there were seven maps presented rather than one or 20, and what were the primary differences between the maps so I could comment effectively, but I was told the differences could not be easily articulated."
Epstein, an engineer with a background in environmental issues, said it was time for a nonpartisan, professional master to be appointed to replace the Redistricting Board, with its 4-1 Republican majority.
The board, using population information from the 2010 census, was supposed to have finished its work before last year's election. But its first plan was declared unconstitutional by the Alaska Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the unconstitutional plan became the basis for the 2012 election because there wasn't time for a new one, and now the board is in extra innings as it works to complete the map in time for the 2014 election.
"The public in Alaska has to live with the consequences of a legislative session with partisan-designed districts," Epstein said. "Such an approach severely undercuts the public's credibility in government, but unfortunately some don't care about that particular concern."
There was a more friendly dialog when Randy Ruedrich, former state Republican Party chairman, spoke on behalf of the plan produced by his Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting. Ruedrich said his plan meets the state Constitution's requirements -- its 40 districts are contiguous, follow natural or political boundaries, enclose regions of similar socio-economic status and contain close to equal population. Most of Anchorage's districts in his map are unchanged or barely changed from what governed the 2012 election, he said.
Ruedrich's plan, and one drawn up by the Bethel regional Native corporation, Calista Corp., were both explained in great detail by their proponents, who told why a neighborhood, village or borough was put in one district or another. For instance, Ruedrich said he put a piece of the northern Anchorage municipality into a Matanuska-Susitna Borough district because there was no other way to split the population and still have something approaching one-person, one-vote.
"In the process of pairing the Anchorage surplus population with southern Mat-Su, we wind up with a compact and socio-economic district that clearly complies with the state Constitution and is a mimic to the districts approved and used in the 1994, 2002 and 2012 maps," Ruedrich said, speaking in the language of redistricting.
Mat-Su Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss said he reviewed Ruedrich's map and was happy with it and the board's 2012 map.
DeVilbiss said the Mat-Su Assembly was "very satisfied with the representation that we have that came out of that map."
Under the 2012 districts, Mat-Su voters elected only Republicans and dumped a moderate Republican senator who had joined a coalition with Democrats. One of their conservative Republicans became the Senate president.
Marcia Davis, Calista's general counsel, said the Bethel-based Native corporation worked with most of the state's Native corporations to arrive at its plan. Its districts come even closer to equal population than Ruedrich's, and they better match socio-economic groupings as well, she said.
Calista started its plan from scratch by hiring a mapping consultant, Stephen Colligan, of Wasilla, and socio-economic consultant Tom Begich, who worked on redistricting for governors Wally Hickel and Tony Knowles.
"It's hard to paint Picasso by committee sometimes, but in all cases we started with a blank map," Colligan said.
One of the most controversial aspects of the 2012 plan was its treatment of the Fairbanks area, the subject of the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court case.
Begich said the Calista map redraws that region, putting the more liberal-voting Ester and Fox areas back with Fairbanks instead of the massive rural district they ended up in. That move left the Fairbanks districts with too many people, so the excess was taken from the area around Eielson Air Force Base. Begich said the ties of Ester and Fox residents to Fairbanks go back generations, while the Eielson area is more transitory and is logically placed in a rural district.
Under the 2012 districts, Fairbanks lost two Democratic senators to conservative Republicans, leading some Democrats to charge gerrymandering. The board said it only followed the law as it saw it.
At the hearing, how to draw the Fairbanks districts led to the only contentious exchange between a witness and the redistricting board, and it was mild one at that.
Board attorney Michael N. White suggested to Begich that it was completely within the board’s discretion to choose whether excess Fairbanks population should be removed to a rural district from the west of the city — Ester and Fox — or east — Eielson. Begich said he was wrong — that to follow the Constitution’s socio-economic guidelines, it had to leave Ester and Fox with Fairbanks.
Neither mentioned the possible effect of either case on the partisan make-up of the Legislature.
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.