City objects to redistricting proposal

Drew Herman
Kodiak Daily Mirror
June 2, 2011

The Kodiak City Council is bustling to get out a letter today telling the Alaska Redistricting Board that the city objects to pairing with Bethel for a Senate district, and would prefer joining with Dillingham and Dutch Harbor.

The council held a special meeting Wednesday following news of the redistricting board’s recent proposal for redrawing state House and Senate districts. Based on the 2010 census, Alaska House districts must expand from the current 15,000 people to about 17,700. Each Senate district consists of two House districts.

The proposed Kodiak House district stretches across Prince William Sound, including Whittier, Cordova and Yakutat, but leapfrogging over the Kenai Peninsula. Several city council members said they don’t mind that arrangement.

But the proposed Senate district with Bethel raised objections due to perceived economic, cultural and geographic differences. A letter dated June 1 to the redistricting board signed by Borough Mayor Jerome Selby describes the borough assembly’s objections.

Commenting at the beginning of the city council meeting, assembly member Dave Kaplan called the pairing of Kodiak and Bethel “disastrous.”

“It will be a quagmire that we’ll have to deal with a long time,” Kaplan said.

The proposed Bethel House district includes Port Graham and Nanwalek on the Kenai Peninsula. It has a short common border with the Kodiak District in a largely uninhabited section of the Alaska Peninsula.

However, the two territories are mostly separated by the large Mainland section of a proposed House district that includes Bristol Bay and the Aleutian Islands. The borough letter signed by Selby calls the Kodiak-Bethel Senate pairing “the worst case of gerrymandering in U.S. history.”

While some city council members consider that characterization extreme, they directed city manager Aimée Kniaziowski to draft a letter to the redistricting board echoing points in the borough’s letter.

Kodiak resident Bob Brodie, a member of the redistricting board, joined the city council meeting by telephone.

“The board has not yet taken a position on the final Senate pairings,” Brodie said.

He said the board will take final action on the new districts Friday or Saturday. That leaves little time for the city council to take action.

The redistricting board began meeting in March. Brodie said he was “disappointed” it took so long to get around to discussion of rural districts, leaving less than a week to decide how to divide up three-quarters of the state’s territory.

“It’s down to the bitter end,” he said.

Complicating the process of drawing rural districts is the requirement in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that any changes not dilute the voting power of Alaska Natives. As a federal mandate, the Native representation requirement trumps the Alaska constitution requirement for drawing contiguous, socioeconomically coherent districts.

The board hired consultant Lisa Handley to analyze how to make rural Alaska districts satisfy the federal requirements.

“The consultant came on board very late in the process,” Brodie said

According to Handley’s analysis, pairing Kodiak with Dillingham and Dutch Harbor would create a district with too low a proportion of Native voters.

Brodie said that could be a problem when the Department of Justice reviews the redistricting plan.

“We’re pretty well at the mercy of those numbers,” he said, although he noted he was not sure how the reviewers would weigh factors other than Native representation.

Brodie called Kodiak a “key piece” the redistricting board is still struggling with.

“It looks to me like Kodiak’s going to be in the mix no matter what,” he said.

Council member Pat Branson called the situation “very unfortunate for rural Alaskans.”

“That seems to be Kodiak’s fate,” she said, recalling a time when Kodiak shared a district with Ketchikan and Craig. “We get plopped away and put somewhere else.”

Council member John Whiddon thinks the Kodiak-Bethel pairing is “almost incomprehensible.”

“A (commercial) fishing community and a subsistence community are very different,” Whiddon said.

Brodie noted the Bethel Native corporation raised similar concerns, “So there’s some resistance up there,” he said.

Brodie advised that if Kodiakans want a Senate district that seems to lower Native representation — like the pairing with Dillingham-Dutch Harbor — they will have to marshal a broad support to meet.

“Because if the Natives don’t want it, the Justice Department won’t go for it,” Brodie said.

That advice left the city council scrambling to find contacts with leaders in the other concerned communities and Native organizations. Kniaziowski planned to have a draft letter to the redistricting board ready by noon today, and city council members would have the afternoon to review it.

Council members agreed with Whiddon, who said history supports the argument that Pairing Kodiak with a Dillingham-Dutch Harbor district would bolster traditional Native political influence.

Brodie said the board’s “overriding concern was to protect the Native voice.”

But he also objected to the federal requirements interfering in the state redistricting process.

“I’m not very happy,” he said.