Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"We have 5 options before us that we’ve talked about all weekend."

"For a decision-making or policy making body, the Open Meetings Act defines a meeting to be:
a gathering of members of a governmental body when . . . more than three members or a majority of the members, whichever is less, are present, [and] a matter upon which the governmental body is empowered to act is considered by the members collectively . . . .32" (link to Alaska's Open Meeting Law)

The Alaska Redistricting Board had five options before it when it met Monday, May 14, 2012.  All were different ways of dividing Southeast Alaska into four house and two senate districts.  The posted agenda was:
*if needed
They were on item 4 when I got there a few minutes late.  There was no executive session.  So I heard all of agenda item 6 - Board adoption of revised Southeast districts.

There was almost no discussion on the options.  Three board members were in the meeting room and two (McConnochie and Holm) were there by phone.

The Board has been good about mentioning the Open Meetings Act every now and then and the Chair has on more than a few occasions pointed out that no more than two Board members can talk about Board business outside of a meeting.  It's not easy, especially when people are working close together, to avoid three or four people who happen to talk about the districts, say, when they go back to get a coffee in the office.  The meetings have been VERY open.  I complained early on about lack of good notice about the meetings.  But for people who know where to look, it's easy to get onto the email list or check the Board's website.  And the Board has done a stellar job of making meetings accessible - by phone and online.  They even got the Superior Court hearings in Fairbanks available by phone.

But I couldn't help wondering how the Board could come to their decision to choose Option A with so little discussion.  And some of the things that were said also raised questions in my mind.

Early in the Item 6 discussion the Chair, John Torgerson, said:
I know we talked about all five of them over the weekend, but option A is the one that we seem to be -- you seem to be gravitating toward, and me, I guess.
[Quotes from the meeting are taken from the transcript of the meeting posted here. My notes were pretty close, but the transcript is precise.]

PeggyAnn McConnochie had the floor long enough to say that the Supreme Court's decision had caused consternation, that it wasn't right or reasonable, that she didn't like any of the options available, but she thought Option A would satisfy the Supreme Court, though it wouldn't satisfy Alaskans.

And then she moved to adopt "Plan A."  Jim Holm seconded it.

That was it.  None of the other members had spoken.  Chair Torgerson had to interject:
" Like I stated earlier, we do have before us five options, so if anybody wants to well, maybe just for the record we should talk about those options under discussion of the motion. I think it certainly would be germane."
Why for the record?  Why not because you need to understand all the options before you can choose one?  The Board did a lot of stuff 'for the record' when they were testing the Constitutionality of the private party plans and their own plans when they came up with the Amended Proclamation Plan.  It sounded very staged.  Like they'd made a list of things they would need to get on the record at the public meeting.  This sounded similar to me.

Taylor Bickford then went through each of the options.  Mostly it was descriptions, things like,
"Option C is another plan that looks at instead of taking north Juneau out of the Borough, taking south Juneau out of the Borough. So again 31 is identical to what we have seen in previous board plans. District 32 is south Juneau and it runs through Excursion Inlet, Gustavus and goes up to grab Haines, Skagway and that area. 34 then is basically Sitka, Wrangell, Petersburg. And then again Ketchikan is the Borough plus Prince of Wales Island. The deviations for this plan are on the next sheet. The overall range for the region is 1.88 percent.  Any questions about that option?
There were no questions and he went on to Option D.

People were explaining, not asking questions, not debating.  Everyone seemed to know that Option A was the answer and now, with Torgerson's request to put things on the record, they were reciting what they knew.  The only question was Holm's "Another issue would be Socio-Econ Issues.  Do we have to consider that in Option A?"  This came after Attorney Michael White discussed compactness and contiguity.  It seemed more like a prompt than a question. (Compactness, contiguity, and socio-economic integration are the three key state constitutional criteria.)

I asked Board Member Brodie right after the meeting how the Board, considering the Open Meetings Law, had come to their decision with so little discussion.  Randy Ruederich answered for him.  I think he said something about Taylor Bickford (executive director) and PeggyAnn McConnochie (board member) working on the maps over the weekend.  I asked Brodie again later and he said he'd also worked on maps and came up with something similar to Option A. He also mentioned concern about how the plan didn't take into account Native Alaskans and their needs.

The Board is under a short time frame to get this out.  They had a weekend and needed to get some work done.  I have no problem with that.  They needed some maps to choose from.  But the choosing, and the discussion around choosing should have happened at the meeting on Monday.   It's possible that they sent out maps to the other members as they worked on them, or  that PeggyAnn McConnochie, who worked on the maps, called all the other members one by one, and explained the benefits of Option A.  

But what exactly did Torgerson mean when he said,
"I know we talked about all five of them over the weekend, but option A is the one that we seem to be -- you seem to be gravitating toward, and me, I guess."

From this comment and from how ready they were to just vote for Option A without any discussion, it would appear there was a lot of discussion over the weekend.  Maybe he meant "You and me" when he said 'we,' and not the whole board.  But everyone seemed ready to vote without the discussion.  Torgerson seemed to feel he needed to get some discussion on the record before they voted.  There's a good chance that what they did technically complied with the  Open Meetings Act - that there were never more than two members talking to each other at the same time about redistricting.  Perhaps the Executive Director and the Attorney talked with two Board Members at a time.   If in the end, they do that enough so that they all agree on the best option and the Chair knows that and which option they agree on, does that still meet the spirit of the open meetings act? Especially if factors they considered in making their decision aren't discussed in the open meeting?

For instance,  there was no mention at the meeting that Rep. Peggy Wilson (R) would no longer be paired with Rep. Kyle Johanson (R).  Or that Alaska Native Rep. Bill Thomas (R) of Haines would now be paired in a district with North Juneau Rep. Cathy Munoz (R).  I didn't catch that until I read Tuesday's Anchorage Daily News.  (The Southeast map wasn't detailed and the individual district maps weren't available. Plus I don't know Southeast well enough to catch this on my own.)

But knowing this, Bickford's comments about trying to keep North Juneau in the Borough now make more sense.  So does attorney Michael White's comment about how losing the Native Influence district and pairing Native incumbents would be looked at by the Department of Justice (who have to pre-clear the plan's compliance with the Voting Rights Act.)

The Supreme Court had told the Board to redo the Southeast districts without considering the Voting Rights Act, only the State Constitution.  So in order to make the most compact possible district, presumably, the pairings changed. And, I'm guessing, the new pairing was one of the reason for the gnashing of teeth by the Board about the impact on Native Alaskan representation.  (Maps of the previous and the latest version of Southeast districts are here.)

But they didn't mention that Option A paired two Native incumbents (Rep. Thomas and Sen. Kookesh) with other incumbents. (Kookesh* already had been paired in previous plans.)   Presumably they all knew about this, but it wasn't discussed at the meeting.  Or if they didn't know, why weren't they asking more questions?

I don't know how much information, if any, that affected the decisions wasn't heard by the  five or six members of the public listening to the Board that day.  PeggyAnn McConnochie, the Board member from Southeast, who seems to have spent the most time on this, has been one of the most hardworking and task oriented members of the Board. 

But since the Board so obviously did have a lot of communication over the weekend, the lack of an explanation of how they worked over the weekend, inevitably leads observers to attempt to fill in the gaps.  It would have been good for the spirit of the Open Meetings Act if they had explained what the process had been that got the Board ready to vote with minimal discussion, except for what the Chair wanted on the record. 

[After completing this post, but not yet having posted it, I found a relevant sentence in the Board's Notice of Compliance with the Supreme Court's Order of May 10:
At that meeting [Monday, May 14], the Board reviewed and considered five different configurations of the Southeast districts prepared by Board staff with individual Board member input over the weekend.
I would say the board reviewed the five configurations, but it sure seemed like they'd already considered them.  It is worded to show compliance with the Open Meetings Act, but doesn't answer my question about why they all seemed to so ready to vote for Option A with no discussion, and how the discussion they had, prompted by the chair, really had no give and take people normally have in a discussion.]

*Senators Kookesh and Stedman were mentioned in the meeting.  But this was in the discussion on truncation.  Should their district be truncated or not since one incumbent was in essentially 80% of his old district (no need for truncation) but the other had lost most of his old district (which would require truncation)?  I learned after the meeting that the whole discussion was moot since both their terms expire this year and so they automatically both have to run in November 2012. 

1 comment:

  1. Intriguing. Thanks for the insights we'll never get from the mainstream media.


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