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Anchorage residents sue over redistricting plan for Eagle River, East Anchorage

Published: Dec. 10, 2021 at 4:54 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Three East and North Anchorage residents have filed a lawsuit against the Alaska Redistricting Board over its Senate district pairings in the northeast Anchorage and Eagle River areas.

The lawsuit claims that the pairings magnify the political influence of the Eagle River area, while diluting the influence of voters in East Anchorage, one of the city’s most diverse and unified communities.

Felisa Wilson, George Martinez, and Yarrow Silvers filed the suit through law firm Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot. The suit claims that the Alaska Redistricting Board, made up of five members, “adopted arbitrary and egregiously irrational senate districts, pairing Eagle River house districts with fragments of East Anchorage communities of interest despite the starkly different and even contradictory legislative needs of these communities.”

The complaint alleges that after adopting a map of house districts on November 5, the board called a public meeting in executive session for Monday, Nov. 8, without a stated purpose or scope. The filing states that after the executive session meeting, the board entered a work session, for which the public could not substantively see or hear deliberations through the virtual platform. Later during that meeting, actions were taken that were both visible and audible to a virtual audience when two board members presented five different senate pairings pertaining to this area, according to the lawsuit.

The suit says board member Melanie Bahnke submitted a proposal that paired Eagle River house districts together for senate representation, consistent with previous senate districting. Her proposal also kept the Muldoon area together, pairing North and South Muldoon house districts together for the senate.

Member Bethany Marcum, according to the lawsuit, then presented four proposals for the Anchorage area, which all paired the Eagle River districts with an East Anchorage house district.

Bahnke and Nicole Borromeo, another member, “vehemently objected to splitting the Eagle River Districts and the Muldoon Districts,” the suit claims. The two argued that Marcum’s plan would split the East Anchorage communities and disenfranchise those voters. Marcum indicated that her plan, “actually gives Eagle River the opportunity to have more representation,” the suit claims.

More representation for a smaller number of voters is already at issue in the courts with a lawsuit filed by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which claims that nearly all of the state’s “under-represented” districts — meaning more people than ideal in each district represented by one elected official — are in the Mat-Su, and that Anchorage overall is over represented — meaning fewer people in each district — by about 10 percent.

The objections of Bahnke and Borromeo were overruled, with Marcum’s pairings adopted by a vote of 3-2. Board chair John Binkley, Budd Simpson and Marcum voted in favor of them.

Borromeo moved to reconsider the action, arguing that the pairing would be vulnerable to a legal challenge, and that it “defies logic” to pair South Muldoon, a highly diverse area, with “a very white district, eight miles away on [the] highway, that crosses one mountain range,” the suit claims.

Borromeo argued that South Muldoon and Eagle River Valley residents would have to leave their senate district and drive through another just to get to the other part of it.

The suit argues that the board violated the Open Meetings Act and the Federal and Alaska Constitutions, by not presenting the senate district pairing proposals for public comment, making “egregiously irrational and arbitrary” senate pairings, mischaracterizing public testimony from lawsuit plaintiff Wilson as in favor of Marcum’s plan, and misusing the executive session process to come to a conclusion outside of the public eye.

The lawsuit asks the courts to declare that the board was wrong, and that the Eagle River senate districts and East Anchorage/Eagle River pairings are unconstitutional; to prohibit the state from holding a state election using the senate districts; to declare the adopted pairings void, and to either adopt Bahnke’s proposal or create new lawful ones.

Peter Torkelson, executive director of the redistricting board, said Friday that he couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

Neither the current suit, nor the suit filed by the Mat-Su Borough last week have dates set in court.

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