The Alaska Redistricting Board on Thursday refused a request by a Fairbanks attorney to change a frying-pan shaped Senate district that reaches over most of Fairbanks to lump Democratic leaning Ester with Republican leaning North Pole.
In rejecting the request, the board will likely be back in court with its latest redistricting plan, continuing the uncertainty that began with its first plan in 2011. District boundaries determine the constituencies for legislators and their challengers, including whether incumbents are forced to face each other.
The vote Thursday by the Republican-dominated board was 5-0 following a closed executive session called to "discuss litigation issues."
The board met telephonically with only its attorney, Michael D. White, attending its board room in Anchorage. The public phone lines were shut down and visitors asked to leave during the executive session, which lasted about 30 minutes.
Fairbanks attorneys Michael Walleri, representing two voters from Ester and Goldstream, had told the board in a letter Wednesday that if it failed to agree to settle the matter by changing Senate District B, his clients will challenge the district plans in court. And if they did, he added, they wouldn't limit the challenge to House and Senate districts in the Fairbanks area, but would also oppose the board's plans in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Walleri said those districts fail to comply with the state's constitution, which requires that districts be compact, contain nearly equal population, and encompass "a relatively integrated socio-economic area."
"We are confident in our ability to successfully challenge the recently adopted plan based upon those problems," Walleri wrote.
The board had approved the new districts in a proclamation Sunday, declaring they followed the state constitution and should pass muster with the courts.
A statement emailed by the board later Thursday said it just filed the proclamation with Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy. McConahy is supervising the redistricting process following the successful challenge to the board's 2011 redistricting effort brought by Walleri and Jason Gazewood, another Fairbanks attorney.
That case went to the Alaska Supreme Court, which ruled against the Redistricting Board but ordered the 2012 elections held under the flawed plan because time had run out.
George Riley, the Ester voter represented by the lawyers, said Thursday that he and co-plaintiff Ron Dearborn of Goldstream would renew their protest in Superior Court in Fairbanks within the next 10 days.
"I'm really disappointed they didn't give it a little more consideration," Riley said, referring to the proposal to change the Senate district. "We were very hopeful that we'd reach this compromise and it would be an end to litigation and the result would be a very fair and balanced area in the Interior."
"We look forward to seeing them again in front of Judge McConahy," Riley added.
Two Democratic senators from Fairbanks, Joe Paskvan and Joe Thomas, lost re-election bids under the earlier plan, clearing the way for legislative approval of Gov. Sean Parnell's oil-tax cuts in the overwhelmingly Republican 2013 Legislature. Democrats said that was the intent of the new districts, though redistricting board members said they did not engage in political gerrymandering.
The Alaska Constitution requires the state's 40 House districts to be redrawn every 10 years once the result of the U.S. Census is known. The board is then directed to create 20 Senate districts by pairing two bordering House districts.
In the letter to the board, Walleri argued that its pairing of House Districts 3 and 4 into Senate District B, and House Districts 5 and 6 into Senate District C, created lopsided Senate districts of greater population disparity than a different pairing: 3 with 6, and 4 with 5.
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill lives in the eastern edge of House District 3. With strong support from North Pole, now near the end of the outstretched panhandle of Senate District B, he beat Thomas in 2012. Thomas lives in the new House District 4, still in Coghill's Senate district.
In Walleri's pairing, Thomas would live in the district of freshman Click Bishop.
Riley said he wasn't trying to create a partisan advantage for any potential candidate, but wanted districts that better reflected the patterns of settlement in the Fairbanks area. House Districts 4 and 5 center on the University of Fairbanks, he said, while 3 and 6 focus on North Pole, Salcha and a large swathe of rural Interior.
In his letter to the Redistricting Board, attorney Walleri said it had changed Senate pairings in Anchorage "for the articulated purpose" of reducing population disparity, and wondered why it wouldn't do the same for Fairbanks.
"We are also aware that those actions (in Anchorage) had political ramifications that benefitted the Republican Party," Walleri wrote. "If the Board does not accept our proposal, we believe that the board members should be prepared to explain in Court why decreasing (population) deviations in Anchorage was required, while decreasing possible deviations in Fairbanks was not required."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.