Assembly member wants to create more Assembly and School Board districts

Rosemary Shinohara

Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Birch is proposing that the city put a measure before voters in the April city election to require that the Assembly and School Board each be made up of representatives from 11 single-member districts -- a significant change from now.

It would take amendments to the city charter, which is like Anchorage's constitution.

The idea of doing that prompted a blog rant from another assemblyman, Patrick Flynn, who thinks Birch's plan goes too far.

The School Board now consists of seven members elected at large to each represent the entire city. The Assembly has 11 members, but only six election districts. Five areas have two representatives and one district, downtown, is half the size and has only one representative.

Birch was chairman of a three-member Assembly subcommittee that came up with plans for how to reapportion the Assembly this year based on population changes reported in the 2010 census. The Assembly adopted a plan Nov. 13 that keeps district boundaries similar to the existing ones.

Birch says his new proposals, to be introduced at Tuesday's Assembly meeting and up for public hearing Dec. 18, came out of concerns he heard during the reapportionment process.

For one thing, the city's population has exploded since the six Assembly districts were created in the 1970s, Birch says, and now the Assembly members in the two-member districts represent 53,000 people, which he thinks is a lot.

For another, the original plan was to reconfigure the Assembly districts every decade to rotate which part of town gets represented by a single member. But that hasn't happened for the past 30 years, and two proposals to do it this year did not get anywhere, Birch said.

Some people raised concerns that it's not fair for the downtown district, which includes Fairview and Government Hill, to only have one voice on the Assembly while other areas have two.

The Fairview Community Council voted in support of 11 single-member districts last month, for that very reason, said council president S.J. Klein. "Barring that, we would prefer to see Fairview become part of a two-member district."

Right now the city charter lets the Assembly decide how to configure the districts. But the charter says if they're all one-member districts, the members have to be re-elected every two years instead of three. Why isn't clear.

Birch wants to change that to three years, and make single-member districts the mandatory arrangement.

As for the School Board, Birch proposes 11 one-member districts that match the Assembly districts he wants to create. He says the school budget is bigger than the city's and could use more eyes on it. Plus, electing board members by district would make the members accountable to residents in their part of town, Birch said.

Flynn criticized Birch's work on redistricting this year and his proposals to change the city charter in a post on his blog and Facebook Sunday.

He said the Assembly "badly bungled" the reapportionment process. The subcommittee met without any public notice behind closed doors over months, and hired a partisan consultant with Republican ties, Flynn said.

The subcommittee "produced three lousy plans clearly aimed at protecting the status quo (incumbents), shut out all community council and other public input,", Flynn said.

Flynn says a charter change isn't necessary, and it's not a good idea to require, as opposed to permitting, 11 single-member districts. "There are any number of reasons why a multi-member district might make sense," he said. For example, the military base doesn't use many city services, and a member representing just Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson wouldn't have as much responsibility as other Assembly members, he said.

Some other Assembly members are also cautious about Birch's proposals.

"My biggest concern is I think we need to take our time," Assembly chairman Ernie Hall said. He said he thinks he would enjoy a smaller district, but it should be done over two or three years.

Debbie Ossiander said in her district, Chugiak and Eagle River, she thinks the two Assembly members from that area have been most effective "when we've gone together on things."

Ossiander, a former School Board member, also said there are studies that show problems when School Boards are comprised of people representing individual districts -- problems maintaining equal services for all parts of town.

Mayor Dan Sullivan said he likes Birch's proposals. When you run for Assembly, you want to reach as many people as you can, he said, but it's hard with large two-member districts.

The School Board members would be more accountable if they were representing districts, he said. "I know some people say it will be too parochial, but we work it out on the Assembly."


Reach Rosemary Shinohara at or 257-4340.