By Gretchen Wehmhoff

The trial addressing five lawsuits challenging the Alaska Redistricting Board’s final legislative districting plan begins Jan. 21 with a decision due Feb. 15. One of those lawsuits is from the Municipality of Skagway (MOS). 

The lawsuit, filed by MOS and resident Brad Ryan, opposes the new plan that links the northern Lynn Canal with Mendenhall Valley, rather than downtown Juneau.

The complaint notes that in a special public hearing for Skagway residents, local testimony overwhelmingly supported maintaining a connection between Skagway and the downtown area of Juneau Douglas, similar to the current lines drawn during the 2013 redistricting plan — a plan that also saw court intervention after original plans were challenged.

The Skagway lawsuit insists that the board ignored the concerns of the public who made comments on the issue of Skagway’s relationship with downtown Juneau and the northern Lynn Canal. Twelve people testified during the Oct. 27 Skagway public hearing with the board. All speakers supported remaining in the same district as downtown Juneau due to economic similarities and common tourism and maritime issues. Additional written testimony was also submitted.

The suit claims that, “Skagway has historical, socio-economic and transportation ties with Juneau and Douglas. All three communities are heavily reliant upon the tourism industry as an integral part of their economies.”

The MOS complaint also challenges the economic downfalls of the new district lines stating, “Skagway, Juneau and Douglas thus share significant commonalities, including maritime economic and recreational bases, integrated socio-economic ties among their communities, as well as health care services from the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.”

The new map would leave Rep. Sara Hannan out of the running to represent Skagway.  With new lines drawn, Hannan’s seat would cover portions of Mendenhall Valley rather than northern Lynn Canal.

Robin Brena, attorney for Skagway notes the impractical logistics with the district lines changing.

“When you take Skagway, with about 1,000 residents, and Haines with another 2,000, and add them to the Mendenhall Valley, it creates another issue.  In order to accommodate the addition of Skagway and Haines, the line now goes right through the heart of Mendenhall Valley along Riverside.  So in order to add Skagway and Haines, they had to divide Mendenhall Valley in half.”

On Dec.14, 2021, the five lawsuits against the board were consolidated by superior court order after consideration of the potential redundancy of witnesses, location and the impact the cases could have on each other. The location was set for Anchorage.

It is unlikely three of the lawsuits will impact Skagway, as the redistricting maps have separated Southeast from the rest of the state just north of Yakutat. The Valdez suit might have an impact should they prevail and new district lines include Yakutat.

The City of Valdez and Mark Detter, as plaintiffs, oppose the new map that separates the city from the economically-related Richardson Highway and Prince William Sound communities, citing the pipeline, shipping, fishing and maritime commonalities. The new plan links the district to an area of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough (MSB) which was not in the previous districting plans.  

The complaint also notes “A Valdez citizen must drive over 120 miles after leaving the boundary of District 29, which is approximately ten miles from Valdez’s municipal boundary, in order to reenter the citizen’s own district. Valdez has been arbitrarily separated from the main transportation corridor that connects Valdez with its neighboring communities—the Richardson Highway.”

Plaintiff Calista Corporation, William Naneng and Harley Sundown, believes the changes to the maps will cause a shift in the region’s ability to stay connected and protect the interests of villages who have common hubs and economic realities. The village of Tyonek, a part of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, was added to district 37 rather than staying with the Kenai Peninsula communities in District 8. Calista is asking that “the map not dilute the voters ability to be heard and that Scammon Bay, Hooper Bay and Chevak be included in District 38 and that Kwigillingok, Kongiganak and Quinhagak be included in District 37.”

Felisa Wison, George Martinez and Yarrow Silvers, all residents of Anchorage, are challenging the senate pairings in Chugiak – Eagle River (CER), Joint Base Elmendorf Richarson, Government Hill and Muldoon in East Anchorage. The new plan does not pair the two CER districts into one senate district, but instead pairs Chugiak with JBER and the downtown community of Government Hill. It pairs Eagle River, splitting downtown Eagle River, to a south Muldoon community in Anchorage on the other side of the Chugach Mountains. The lawsuit claims that the board did not hold public testimony to discuss senate pairings and the pairing of the two Eagle River districts with districts in other parts of Anchorage came at the end of the deliberation without warning.

The Anchorage lawsuit points out the logistics of not working to pair contiguous districts and cites the commentaries of two board members, Melaine Bahnke of Nome and Nicole Borromeo of Anchorage, who were adamantly opposed to the senate pairings — believing the two Eagle River districts should be paired together and the two Muldoon districts should be paired to maintain the social, economic and comparable needs the more contiguous pairings would offer.

The complaint quotes Borromeo, “With reference to the East Anchorage Eagle River pairings, there is “no populated area, or military gate even connecting HD (House District) 23, Government Hill/JBER/Northeast Anchorage with HD 24-N. Eagle River/Chugiak, and one cannot travel from South Muldoon to the Eagle River Valley district without leaving the senate district they share, or crossing a mountain range.”

Wilson, Martinez and Silvers are seeking funds through donations to a legal defense fund in their name with their attorneys at Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot.

The fifth lawsuit, filed by Matanuska-Susitna Borough (MSB) and Michael Brown, complains that one of the new districts, the new HD 25, veers off to the south to include the City of Valdez, affirming the argument in the Valdez complaint that the areas have no commonalities and that Valdez is separated from the communities with which it shares economic and regional interests. Matsu also notes that the map for HD 30 includes the MSB communities from Big Lake, Willow, Skwenta, Trapper Creek and  Anderson, Clear and Denali Peak from the Denali Borough, but stops there, leaving Cantwell out. Instead, Cantwell is placed in  the new HD 36  stretching from Holy Cross, around Fairbanks North Star Borough to the Canadian border then down to communities along the Richardson Highway, Tok Cutoff and communities once paired with Valdez. 

Mat-Su notes that all of the districts attached to Mat-Su are considered overpopulated in the division of districts, whereas in comparison to the Municipality of Anchorage’s 18 districts where only two are overpopulated.

The complaint states, “The board’s plan unnecessarily divides the excess population of the MSB in a way that dilutes the effective strength of municipal voters, including by placing them in districts centered elsewhere and that have different social and political concerns; ignoring traditional senate configurations; and, failing to respect political subdivision boundaries and communities of interest, thereby depriving its citizens the right to be an equally powerful and geographically effective vote, all of which is in violation of the equal protection clauses of the United States and Alaska Constitutions.”

The Doyon Coalition moved to intervene as defendants in the Mat-su case. The Coalition is composed of Doyon, Ltd., Tanana Chiefs conference: Fairbanks Native Association; Ahtna, Inc.; Sealaska; Donald Charlie, Sr.; Cherise Beatus and Gordon Carlson. 

The Coalition argues that should MSB and Brown prevail, the interests of the individual groups and voters in the Coalition may be impaired or impeded. Should litigation favor MSB, lines would be redrawn and the interests of the Doyon Coalition could be impacted.

The redistricting board has been criticized for lack of public transparency and equitable outreach to communities.  

In a letter to the board from the Alaska Democratic Party (ADP), they state that not permitting telephone or video communications in rural communities is not in line with making meetings open to the public.

“It appears that access to the board’s meetings is not being granted to all members of the public who would like to attend. While the board may be making efforts to travel throughout the state to hear from community members in person regarding the proposed plans, the board’s decision to disallow telephonic or video conference participation at community meetings poses substantial legal problems. Not only does this practice prevent participation by members of rural communities who are logistically unable to travel to meeting locations, but it also excludes from meetings those who do not wish to risk infection from the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic,” writes the ADP in the letter dated Oct. 26, 2021.

Brena acknowledges that the trial is being done at lightning speed considering that the census information was delayed by four months and what would have been a six month preparation for all parties has turned into six weeks.

He said there were some problems with the redistricting board getting transcripts ready in time.
“I found myself having to depose witnesses without the benefit of transcripts,” he said.

The other option to using transcripts was to listen to hours of testimony to try and find the information he was looking for.

Brena compared the legal process with the judge as the umpire calling balls and strikes. Brena felt the board used attorney client privilege more than would be expected.

“They were protecting over 2,400 emails under attorney client privilege when many of them didn’t even include the attorney,” he said.

In addition, during the fast track to handle the trial and all areas of discovery, the board came under scrutiny when their attorney, Matt Singer, asked for discovery items that included requests for “all communications (including emails and/or text messages) you have sent or received that relate in any way to your participation in this lawsuit” as an example from a request for production dated Dec. 23, 2021. When four of the five plaintiffs refused, Singer filed a motion to compel.

The motion to compel was denied by Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Matthews, considering the board’s motion to be “overly broad and burdensome.”

An unnamed source shared that during discovery, the board produced thousands of non-searchable documents (scanned hard copies) to the plaintiffs, making analysis and research difficult. 

The trial begins Jan. 21 via Zoom and is scheduled to last 11 days generally, running from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with a lunch break. 

The proceedings will be live-streamed on the Alaska State Court YouTube channel.