The Alaska Redistricting Board this week interviewed three applicants for executive director: Two women who expressed no political affiliation and a man who was once an aide to Ralph Seekins, the former Fairbanks legislator and current Republican National Committeeman from Alaska.
And then the board flip-flopped. Chairman John Torgerson said Friday that it wouldn't hire anyone.
One of the women, Laurel Hummel, had a 30-year military career as an officer and civilian, trained Afghans at a military academy in Kabul last year and Americans at West Point before that, traveled through Alaska during a four-year stint as an intelligence officer at Elmendorf Air Force Base and for a study of Cold War installations, and holds a doctorate in geography, which, like redistricting, is the study of people and places. She lives in Anchorage, where her husband is in the Alaska National Guard.
In her interview with the board Thursday, Hummel expressed familiarity with the redistricting process, had used the agency's mapping software in the past, and described the legal issues confounding the board's effort to complete the division of Alaska into 40 equally populated legislative districts. Hummel had a long conversation with the sole Democrat on the five-member board, Marie Greene of Kotzebue, that began when Greene noticed Hummel used an Inupiaq term in the title of a research paper she wrote in 2001. Hummel said the paper stemmed from her belief that Western scientists studying global warming could benefit from the cultural knowledge of indigenous people.
But on Friday, instead of selecting Hummel or one of the other candidates, Torgerson reversed course and said the board would not hire anyone. Instead, he said, it will look for an expert in computer mapping.
Redistricting, required by the state constitution every 10 years to bring legislative districts in line with population shifts, should have been completed by the 2012 election. But the first plans were challenged and rejected by the Alaska Supreme Court as violating the Alaska Constitution. Because the redistricting process ran out of time, the 2012 election was held under an interim redistricting plan.
The Alaska Supreme Court has told the board that 22 of the 40 legislative districts need work, but Torgerson said he is unsure of what that means and may ask the board's counsel to seek clarification from the court.
Under the redistricting plan, the Senate went from a 10-10 split between Democrats and Republicans in the 2008 and 2010 elections to a 13-7 Republican majority in the last election. Democrats blamed gerrymandering, but Republicans said the real gerrymandering took place 10 years before, when Democrats and Native organizations controlled the process.
In October, the board "staffed down" to just an administrative assistant while it awaited a final decision by the state Supreme Court on its plan. With the court's final order in December for at least a partial do-over, the board sought to hire another executive director. Its help wanted ad, running Feb. 15-24, said the position, which involved supervision of up to four employees, would pay between $95,316 to $113,364, depending on experience.
The board began two days of meetings in Anchorage Wednesday to hire the director. Shortly after convening, Torgerson declared an executive session to begin the review of candidates, ordering observers from the room and turning off the teleconference line. He also said the names of candidates and their resumes would be secret.
A Daily News reporter, the only media representative present, asserted that the executive session was improper and declined to leave. But when board counsel Michael White said he would call police, the reporter left and contacted the newspaper's attorney, John McKay.
McKay provided the board with a 1982 Alaska Supreme Court decision in public records lawsuits brought by the Anchorage Daily News and Peninsula Clarion in Kenai. The ruling said that applications for high-level positions may not be kept secret. The court also said that only the hiring deliberations by a government body could be done in executive session.
On Thursday, the board provided the resumes of the three candidates still in consideration: Anchorage residents Hummel, Rachel Morse and Brian Hove. Torgerson said the interviews with the three would be conducted in public session.
Torgerson said two other candidates withdrew at the last minute. One didn't want to be publicly identified, he said. The other hadn't realized the job had a limited duration. Torgerson said the position would end when the plan was in place, the court challenges exhausted and the paperwork cleaned up. That would likely happen by June 2014, Torgerson said.
The hire, had it gone ahead, would have been the board's third executive director. If past actions count for anything, Hove would likely have had the inside track.
The first executive director was Ron Miller, who was active in Republican Frank Murkowski's campaign for governor and later supported Murkowski's daughter Lisa in her campaign for U.S. Senate. Miller died of a heart attack in 2011 and was replaced by Taylor Bickford, campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Walker in 2010.
Hove's first career was banker, but he went to work for Seekins as a legislative aide from 2003 to 2007.
"Our job was to do what Ralph needed to have done," he told the board.
Hove, a registered Republican, said he is now self-employed, running a company called Focus on Alaska that provides marketing services to small businesses, nonprofits and political candidates.
Hummel is a registered Democrat. Morse, interim director of alumni relations for the University of Alaska Anchorage, has a party affiliation of "other" in state voting records.
Steve Aufrecht, an emeritus professor of public administration at UAA, listened to the interview by teleconference then wrote on his blog that Hummel was "so far above and beyond the other two candidates that I can't imagine that the Board, under any circumstances, could not have chosen her."
Torgerson was traveling Friday and couldn't be reached for comment about why the board changed its mind on the hiring. He had left a message on a reporter's phone announcing that decision.
Board member Bob Brodie, a Kodiak real estate broker appointed by former Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said there wasn't much need for an executive director now because of a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that could influence Alaska's redistricting.
In that case, Shelby County, Ala., is challenging the constitutionality of the section of the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights Act that requires some states and localities, including Alaska, to get Justice Department clearance before making any change to its election process, including redistricting. Under Section 5, the Justice Department would review new boundaries to ensure that Natives votes were not improperly diluted. The case is expected to be decided in June.
"The thought was if we have to wait till July, what's the person going to do?" Brodie said.
However, it shouldn't be news to the board that the Shelby case was pending. The Supreme Court announced Nov. 9 it would hear the case. The state filed a friend of the court brief in support of Shelby County on Jan. 3, more than a month before the board began advertising for an executive director. The case was argued Feb. 27.
Board member PeggyAnn McConochie, a real estate broker in Juneau and appointee of Gov. Sean Parnell, said the most important job now is mapping, and that requires an expert in geographic information systems software.
"We have to meet the (Alaska) Supreme Court's directions," she said. "We think we need to draw a new map that meets the constitutional requirements of the state of Alaska."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER