Stung by a Fairbanks judge and plaintiffs who described its inaction earlier this year as "dilatory," the Alaska Redistricting Board announced this week it will meet for eight consecutive days starting Friday as it works to produce its final election blueprint.
The hectic schedule of meetings, including possible day-long sessions Saturday and Sunday, came after a number of critics testified at public hearings in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau that the courts should dismiss the board and appoint a nonpartisan master to draw the state's 40 legislative districts.
That same demand had earlier been made by two Fairbanks voters who successfully challenged the board's 2011 plan in a case that went to the Alaska Supreme Court. The justices there rejected the redistricting plan as unconstitutional but allowed it to be used for the 2012 election because of time constraints. The courts so far have allowed the five-member board to remain in business, though they've increased their scrutiny of the redistricting process, now two years behind schedule.
Democrats have complained that the plan used in 2012, drawn by a board that is 4-1 Republican, contributed to the big Republican victory that led to one-party rule in Juneau this year. Even though Barack Obama increased his proportion of the statewide vote in Alaska in 2012 by three percentage points over 2008, only seven Democratic senators were elected in 2012, compared to 10 in 2008.
Board members said they didn't take politics into account when they drew the first round of districts in 2011, and aren't now.
Board vice chairwoman PeggyAnn McConnochie, a real estate broker from Juneau appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell, said the board hopes to have a final plan by July 12.
Board members themselves will sit down in front of computers and draw the boundaries based on their knowledge of the state, the draft maps they and others have already prepared, and recent testimony and public comments, she said.
"The court said we had to have one by the 12th, so the goal is we're going to have one on or before," McConnochie said. "If we make great progress because we have gotten a lot of great suggestions, if we're on a roll, I think we go until we get it done."
If the members need it, the board will have help from a computer mapping specialist on loan from the Alaska Department of Labor, McConnochie said. There's an office with a computer for each board member and a work area where they can all get together in their rented suite in the Sunshine Plaza downtown at 411 W. Fourth Ave. in Anchorage.
Aside from an office manager, the board has no other staff. A plan announced last month to bring back its former executive director, Taylor Bickford, on a temporary, part-time basis was shelved over potential conflicts of interest with clients of his public relations business.
The Alaska Constitution requires that new legislative districts be drawn every 10 years once results from the U.S. Census are available and population shifts can be documented.
For the next round of meetings, announced in an email Tuesday and published on the board's website, the board produced identical daily agendas, with the exception of Friday, when the meeting starts at 11 a.m. Every other day, through July 12, the plan is to start at 10 a.m. The agendas all list "Discussion of social-economic integration," "Discussion of draft plans," "Board work session," and "Executive session on litigation strategies (if necessary)." The meetings are open to the public and are live-streamed through the Legislature's website.
McConnochie said a daily adjournment time was not set to allow the board to work until the members want to stop.
"If I want to work till 6 or 7 or 8, I want to be able to do that," she said.
In its last round of meetings in June, in which the board members produced seven separate possible redistricting formulas relying on the so-called Hickel process, named in an earlier Supreme Court decision, the board's attorney, Michael N. White, made it sound in a legal filing like sweat was dripping from their foreheads as they worked "tirelessly over the past couple of weeks."
"Since adopting its schedule on June 7, 2013, the Board had been hard at working drafting various Hickel plans and preparing for the public hearings, all while working in an office with no air conditioning," he told Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy in a written motion.
Before it began its current schedule, McConahy had rebuked the board in May for acting in a "dilatory" and "disingenuous" manner. But in his filing Tuesday, White asked the judge to not order formal deadlines because they weren't necessary.
White has also returned to the Alaska Supreme Court, asking it to overturn a suggestion contained in a order by McConahy that any Alaska voter could challenge the board's final plan in court. White said only plaintiffs already in court should be allowed that right, arguing that opening the door for more lawsuits could lead to "endless litigation."
But attorneys for the two Fairbanks residents who successfully challenged the earlier plan said that because the board started drawing new districts from scratch, its final plan should be open to challenge just like the first plan.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER