The Alaska Supreme Court has rejected the latest redistricting map for Southeast Alaska and approved a plan that combines downtown Juneau with Petersburg, Gustavus and Skagway.
Last week the board paired Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley with Haines and Skagway. But in Tuesday’s decision, the court cited numerous objections and said there is a risk the U.S. Justice Department would not clear the plan under the Voting Rights Act.
Juneau – the largest city in the district – appears to be the elephant in the room. Redistricting Board Executive Director Taylor Bickford says it’s a defining demographic reality of the region.
“From what we’ve seen from our public hearing process, the comments we received, the lawsuits that have been filed, is that it seems like really nobody wants to be paired with Juneau,” Bickford says. “So no matter how we draw Southeast Alaska, there’s always going to be some community that has to be paired with Juneau and ultimately isn’t happy with that.”
The plan approved by the court was adopted April 5th by the redistricting board. Both Petersburg and Skagway have objected to being in a district with downtown Juneau and Douglas, currently represented in the House by Beth Kerttula and in the Senate by Dennis Egan.
Kerttula calls it a great district, a beautiful district, and says she will be happy run to represent it.
“I feel badly for communities that feel like they’re getting split up and split off of their old district. And I empathize with that. All I can say is I’ll work my hardest to do a good job, no matter what district I’m in,” Kerttula says.
Meanwhile, Haines Representative Bill Thomas and his community are relieved not to be in a district with Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley. Last week’s map had Thomas running against Representative Cathy Munoz. The Haines Borough and Alaska Native groups objected.
“I’m surprised and happy that it worked,” Thomas says. “But you know I was prepared to run, if I had to, in the Mendenhall. In talking to people we were laying the ground work, but I’m glad I’m back to the villages.”
The population of Thomas’ current House District 5 is more than one-third Alaska Native. The political map approved by the Supreme Court combines Haines with Angoon, Hoonah, Kake as well as Sitka.
It also resurrects a contest between Wrangell Rep. Peggy Wilson and Ketchikan Rep. Kyle Johansen.
Wilson represents her hometown, Petersburg and Sitka. Now she’ll be in a district with Ketchikan, Saxman and parts of Prince of Wales Island.
Reached via cell phone in the Midwest, Wilson says the decision surprised her. Both Johansen and Wilson prefer not to run against each other.
“I just hate it because Kyle and I have been good friends up until now,” she says. “Since the redistricting, we both felt uncomfortable about it. So, it’ll be a little strained.”
People intending to run for office must file by June 1st with the Alaska Division of Elections.
Director Gail Fenumiai says despite the changing political maps this year, no deadlines need to be adjusted.
“We have been mapping each scenario as it had been released and so we’ve got our precinct boundaries drawn for the amended plan of April 5,” Fenumiai says. “We’re working on getting them all finalized and into proper form and we’ll start the regulation process at the end of the month and submit them to the Department of Justice for preclearance.”
Fenumiai says voter identification cards will be mailed by mid-July so voters know their district and precinct. She says the Division of Election’s online voter lookup system also will be re-activated.
- So far, the Juneau School District has enrolled about 230 more students than it expected. If the higher enrollment remains true in October, the district could get enough additional state funding to cover a near $200,000 deficit.
- Juneau-based nonprofit, Southeast Alaska Land Trust, was denied its property tax exemption earlier this year. Now the Assembly will take another look.
- "A lot of ice experts, including myself, thought we were headed for a record year minimum," said Hajo Eicken, a professor at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.