Redistricting recap: The Skagway shuffle

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Programming note: Final oral arguments in the Alaska Redistricting trial are scheduled to begin 9 a.m., Friday, Feb. 11. You can watch them here. A final decision is due to the Alaska Supreme Court for the inevitable appeal on Feb. 15.

In our final day of redistricting recaps, let’s talk about the case brought by Skagway. As you can see from the sections below, it started out as an almost-boring legal challenge that seemed to rest largely in the relative socioeconomic connections between Skagway and its neighbors but gained steam as it went on.

The city argued the Alaska Redistricting Board was wrong to diverge from the current House district maps—which pair Downtown Juneau with Skagway, Haines and other neighboring communities—and settle on the final proposal that splits Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley (which is relatively conservative). They argue that Downtown Juneau is the best fit for Skagway, citing the two areas’ heavy reliance on the cruise ship industry and the focus of professional services in Downtown Juneau. The plan was drawn by Juneau Republican Budd Simpson and the case really started to pick up once he took the stand on the second day. Simpson was almost completely disinterested in the socioeconomic connections in the maps, arguing that he was focused on making more-compact districts (which doesn’t hold up all that well when you consider the snaking House District 2 was also his doing). On the stand, he said had always been bothered that Downtown Juneau House district had wrapped around the Mendenhall Valley to connect with Skagway and Haines. He said it was his main goal to reverse that pairing by splitting off the northern end of Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley to form the House District 3. About a third of the Mendenhall Valley population was splintered off to form House District 4 with Downtown Juneau.

In one of the most heated day’s of questioning, Valdez attorney Robin Brena highlighted Simpson’s involvement in Republican politics and, particularly, his support for the controversial Juneau Road. Brena was able to point to past votes that showed both Downtown Juneau and Skagway stoutly opposed the road while the Mendenhall Valley had generally been supportive of the road. They argue that the plan here is to splinter opposition to the road and give the comparatively conservative, road-supporting Mendenhall Valley greater say in both road issues and politics.

Plodding along from Feb. 2

The Alaska Redistricting trial continued to plod along today with the court hearing witness testimony on the case brought by Skagway, which argues that they ought to be paired in the House district that covers downtown Juneau. The lawsuit largely relies on the shared connection of a heavy reliance on cruise ships and tourism. The board countered with a bevy of questions that asserted Skagway was relatively socio-economically integrated with the communities in the district produced by the board, pointing to the ferry system and school sports schedules.

Follow the thread: Day nine of the Alaska Redistricting trial where we zoom in on the Skagway complaints

The Road to Juneau from Feb. 3

The last few days of the redistricting trial have started to blur together with just about every variation of question about the relative socioeconomic integration of just about every village, city and borough in Alaska posed to just about every witness that has been in front of the court. Making the case that socioeconomic integration is grounds to invalidate the maps is going to be a tough sell when the Alaska Constitution and the legal precedent give the Alaska Redistricting Board broad latitude to decide what is relatively socioeconomically integrated. For example, the court previously ruled that anything within a municipal boundary is automatically considered socioeconomically integrated. And besides, as the testimony of the past two weeks has demonstrated, socioeconomic integration is largely in the eye of the beholder… and just how creative the beholder is willing to get.

Is the village of Holy Cross more socioeconomically integrated with the road system town of Glenallen that’s nearly 450 miles away as the raven flies than Russian Mission about 70 miles down the river? The Alaska Redistricting Board says the former.

Anyways, that’s all to say that at least today’s challenges to the board’s decision to sever ties between Downtown Juneau and Skagway made for one of the more interesting challenges to the socioeconomic connections of the maps produced by the Alaska Redistricting Board. Here, Skagway argues the board ignored the city’s obvious socioeconomic connections to Downtown Juneau—as well as nearly unanimous public testimony in both Skagway and Juneau—when it paired them together with Mendenhall Valley in creating House District 3. We saw the argument develop more today with a big focus in on Skagway’s reliance on the tourism industry, it’s connection to professional services in Downtown Juneau and its opposition to the controversial road project that could connect Juneau to Skagway.

Here’s the board’s finalized map that’s in question:

Testimony from the Skagway officials was essentially along the lines of “Why fix something that’s not broken?” They argued that the existing map (below) that paired Skagway, Haines and Gustavus with Downtown Juneau was a far better representation of the region’s shared interests and should have been maintained. They argued that the near-unanimous satisfaction with the status quo left them shocked when the map was shaken up so significantly by board member Budd Simpson, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

A bulk of today featured some of the most combative questioning we’ve seen so far as attorney Robin Brena (who is representing both Skagway and Valdez) grilled Simpson over the maps and the decisions that went into making them. Brena kicked things off by getting Simpson to concede that the list of Republicans in Southeast Alaska is short, acknowledging he doesn’t share the same views as many of the other residents of Southeast Alaska. And among those differing attitudes is the fact that Simpson and his wife, Paulette, are some of the biggest boosters of the Juneau Road project. Where other cases have largely focused in on witnesses’ opinions about the socioeconomic integration, Brena was able to point to several votes that showed both Skagway and Downtown Juneau had similarly voted against the road while the Mendenhall Valley had supported the road. Skagway’s long opposed the road, arguing that it would decimate the community’s economy and turn it into a mere truck stop.

Simpson dismissed the concerns, arguing that the community could simply pivot to another industry if the cruise ships stopped arriving or its port was rendered obsolete by the road. Simpson, an attorney, seemed well aware of the latitude that the legal precedent in redistricting. When asked about the decision to divide the Mendenhall Valley between the the two districts—which he acknowledged was the direct result of the decision to shuffle Skagway, Haines and Gustavus—he essentially scoffed at the notion that it raised problems of socioeconomic integration problems, reminding Brena that the board could essentially do whatever it wanted within a municipality’s boundaries.

In overall defense of the shuffled maps and his rejection of the weight of the public testimony, Simpson turned to the Alaska Constitution’s other metrics for judging districts: That they be contiguous and compact. He argued that the existing district has always bothered him because it swept from Downtown Juneau up and around the Mendenhall Valley district. Here’s the map:

It’s a smart deflection, recognizing that there’s a difference between what people think should be done and what the law allows. Just how Judge Matthews ultimately weighs it and, more critically, how the Alaska Supreme Court ultimately weighs it will be very interesting and possibly precedent-setting for future cases because, as I see it, this is just about the strongest case you can make over socioeconomic integration.

And while it may not come to much by the final ruling, it’s also worth noting that the lone Skagway resident who testified in support of shaking up the maps was Kathy Hosford, another Republican booster in Southeast Alaska who hosted just so happened to host Simpson at her lodge on his only recent visit to Skagway.

Up next: The trial is, mercifully, expected to wrap up on Friday with the final Skagway rebuttal witness and then some housekeeping over exhibits.

Follow the thread: Day 10 of the Alaska Redistricting trial play-by-play

Just a speedbump from Feb. 4

On the air: I got to chat with KHNS’s Mike Swasey about the trial and its impacts on the region.

As we wrap up things at this stage, I wanted to highlight a two key points from the last few days:

Inconsistent standards. As I wrote about in yesterday’s newsletter, the Skagway case became much more interesting on Thursday with more concrete discussions about the socioeconomic connections between the city and the Downtown Juneau district that we’ve seen throughout the course of the rest of the trial. The issue of socioeconomic integration is one of those tricky, eye-of-the-beholder metrics that doesn’t have a clear and easily measurable definition. This is a problem with all of requirements laid out by the Alaska Constitution that has dogged the Redistricting Board from the get-go. How do you measure one community’s connection to another? How do you know when a district is compact? Even the issue of contiguity, which you would think would be cut-and-dry, has been argued before the Alaska Supreme Court in prior rounds. The one measurable factor of population is specifically given the least priority in the process, with direction for the board to prioritize the other three factors over it.

But even then, how do we balance the compactness of one district against another? How do we weigh socioeconomic integration of one district against its compactness?

Robin Brena, who’s representing both Skagway and Valdez in their complaints, argues that the board has, at the very least, been inconsistent in how it approaches these decisions. In the case of Valdez’s legal challenges, the board has argued that the relative socioeconomic integration of the huge House District 36 trumped compactness when it created a horseshoe district that wraps around the Fairbanks and Denali boroughs. Meanwhile, in the Skagway’s legal challenges board member Budd Simpson seemingly ignored any socioeconomic connections in favor of what he argued was a more compact House district.

To make the point on both sides of the litigation, Brena presented this map that compares the board’s adopted district for Skagway against the alternatives drawn by his expert witness, Kimball Brace, and against the massive House District 36 that’s at issue in the Mat-Su/Valdez case:

Both Brace and Brena argue that this map—which seemed to baffle Simpson because the house districts were drawn over the Kenai Peninsula simply as a means of comparison—is evidence that the board has inconsistently applied Alaska Constitution’s guidelines for redistricting. In what were quite literally Brena’s final minutes to question witnesses (he finished with all but four minutes of his allotted six-and-a-half-hours used), he asked Brace if it was his opinion if the board had been consistent with its application of compactness.

“No, I don’t see that they’ve done that at all,” Brace said. “There’s lots of different ways that they showed compactness is less important—Cantwell’s one example, Fairbanks is another. You’ve got lots of different examples where compactness was not really taken into account.”

He said the same went for economic integration.

While much of these metrics are, as Brace said during the trial, in the eye of the beholder, the inconsistent application is readily apparent.

Conflicts of interest. The Skagway case was also the clearest when it came to putting the potential conflicts of interest that run throughout the redistricting process on display. I wrote about some of the conflicts raised with Simpson’s approach to the Juneau maps—that he’s a Republican, that he has a GOP connection with the sole Skagway resident advocating for the way the maps were eventually drawn and that his support of the Juneau Road—in yesterday’s newsletter, but it should also be highlighted that Brena zeroed in on the involvement of the Alaska Redistricting Board’s legal counsel Matt Singer with several of the interested parties. He’s got work with the Mat-Su Borough and the Calista Corporation (which are both suing the board) as well as Ahtna, Inc. (which is intervening along with Doyon in defense of the board’s plan). These relationships formed a great deal of the Thursday’s questioning of Simpson, who sat in on the board’s review of law offices.

While Singer and Simpson waved away the accusations as unfounded, with Singer at one point saying that he’s been accused of everything but being mean to puppies, there’s been some significant questions raised. For example, during the vetting process it wasn’t entirely clear whether the board even knew that Singer was actively involved with Ahtna in several cases before the courts. In another example, the board has yet been unable to produce the signed version of a conflict-of-interest form.

When asked about the Ahtna, Inc., relationship, Simpson said it was “not a big deal” and noted that Ahtna’s happy with the maps.

It’s unclear what, if any, weight this would carry at the end of the day, but it certainly raises more questions than it answers.

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