Sunday, March 17, 2013

How Could Redistricting Board NOT Hire Laurel Hummel? Political Neutrality Appears Ripped To Shreds - Part 1

In Write Hard, Die Free, Howard Weaver writes of his frustration as a reporter in Juneau constrained by journalistic convention from actually telling what he knew about what was going on:
"Journalists were objective, right?  Just the facts, ma'am.  I wrote a few stories that tried to poke through the public illusion of the legislature as a high-minded, public-spirited institution, but somewhere between the copy desk in Anchorage and my own constipated sense of fairness they often wound up being  'he-said, she-said' stalemates at best."(pp. 56-57)
I've been covering the Redistricting Board since March 2011.  I generally try to present the facts and let the readers come to their own conclusions.  But sometimes, like now, I feel like Weaver.  And so in these two posts, I'm going to try to explain what I think is going on here and why.  I'm going to comment on the visible facts and speculate on what we can't see.

In this post I'll give the background.   In the next post I'll move to speculation about why this has happened.

The Perfect Applicant Gets Rejected

If God herself had wanted to intervene in the Alaska Redistricting process, She could not have created a more perfect candidate to be the Board's Executive Director than Laurel Hummel.

Yet they chose not to hire anyone.  How could that be?

The job requires knowledge of geography and mapping including GIS.  

Laurel Hummel has a PhD in Geography, specifically human geography which would come in particularly handy when the board has to determine things like socio-political [economic] integration of districts.  She was modest about her GIS skills - she hadn't taught a class on GIS.  She'd only used it and only knew the names of various software that was used to do GIS.  And the kind she had used was the kind the Board used.  The previous director had gone to classes to learn GIS as part of his on-the-job training, and she's apologizing for not having taught it!  [GIS is geographic information systems]

This job requires knowledge of Alaska Native culture.  

Laurel Hummel did her doctoral dissertation on the impact of the US military in Alaska on the Alaska Native population. As part of her dissertation she traveled around Alaska meeting Alaska Native leaders to discuss those impacts.  She's a human geographer and talked about how by understanding that different people had different 'truths' one could hope to understand them and find ways to consensus.

The job requires management skills including working with the press and consensus building and understanding confidentiality.   

Laurel Hummel went through a long list of examples of situations in her 30 year military career where she displayed these skills, including the integration of women in Afghan institutions (I didn't quite get the details here - it may have been the Parliament [a reader emailed it was the army]) and the fact that she worked in Army Intelligence had given her lots of understanding of   confidentiality.  She pointed out that in the Board's case, there was certain information that must be made public, other information that should be public, and information that has to be confidential.  She also said that unlike in some of her military situations, here there were no enemies.  That she regarded the public and the media as part of the process.  (Maybe that's what got her in trouble with the Board.)

There were things that she didn't have personal experience actually using - like the Alaska Public Meetings Law, or the Alaska Administrative Procedures Act.  Yet she had read them, discussed them knowledgeably, and had dealt with similar laws at the federal level.  It wouldn't take long to get up to speed.  Like a day maybe.  Compared with the need to get up to speed with the GIS software, which the Board all had to do, but which Hummel already has used.  This is a non-issue.

There was nothing about this candidate not to love for this job.

Chronology of the hiring process

Feb 12  - After the Alaska Supreme Court said, in December, that the Board had to start all over because they hadn't followed the Hickel Process, the Board met to discuss its next steps.   After a lengthy legal discussion about the Alaska Supreme Court decision, the Board's Petition for Reconsideration,  and the Shelby County v. Holder decision still to be heard at the US Supreme Court then, they talked about their time line for finishing up.  This included interviewing for a new Executive Director around March 14.

Feb. 24 - The Alaska Supreme Court rejected the Board's petition for reconsideration.

Feb. 27 - The US Supreme Court heard the Shelby County v. Holder case and court watchers speculated that the conservatives on the court sounded inclined to rule for Shelby County, though it was not clear how sweeping such a ruling might be.

March 8 - The Board posted notice of meetings on March 13-14 to review applications and interview applicants on their website.  There was a link for people who wanted to listen online.

Screen shot from Board's website - click to make it bigger and clearer

March 12 - I contacted the Board to find out if there would be a back up phone-in option if the LIO connection didn't work. (This has happened in the past.)  I was told that the Chair had decided that since the meeting would mostly be in Executive Session and there would only be a brief public opening of the meeting, there wouldn't be a teleconference of the meeting. 

March 13 - I checked back in the morning and talked to the Chair pointing out that the agenda had the attorney talking about legal issues before the Executive Session and the Board member comments after the session.  I also pointed out that the teleconference link had been advertised on their website.  He said he'd think about it and shortly after I got a call saying I would be able to listen via the Legislative tv channel online. 

The Board met.  Board attorney White spoke about the Shelby County case and its possible impacts on the Board's work, then the Board went into Executive Session.

I also had asked how many applicants there were (originally six, but one had dropped out at that point) and was told that they would all be interviewed.  I knew about the 1982 Alaska Supreme Court decision saying that for high level policy making positions, applicants' names and resumes needed to be available to the public.  So I emailed back to get the names and was told that no one had asked that question, they hadn't gotten permission from the applicants to release the information.  So no I couldn't have them.

March 14 - At the meeting, attorney White explained that the Anchorage Daily News requested that the Board release the names of the applicants and referred to the Supreme Court case.  He said they had notified the applicants that their names would be released.  One applicant dropped out rather than be publicly noted.  Another dropped out, not having  realized the job wasn't permanent.  White also said it wasn't clear whether it was required to have the interviews public, but the Board had decided to do that.

So, at the last minute, the Board released the names and the interviews were public.

In the next post, I'll speculate on why the Board did not choose a new Executive Director.

Actually, the next post turned out to be a look at the Supreme Court case the Anchorage Daily News cited in getting the meeting opened.  Examining it, it's clear that the decision to NOT hire should have been made in public too.  Actually most of the deliberations on the candidates should have been in public.


  1. It's very simple, Steve, the board did not hire an executive director, especially not the candidate best qualified for the job, because that could have become some form of constraint on the chair and the board being able to run roughshod over the process.

    This isn't hard, it's not nuanced. It's simple, the chair and the board have no wish or care to conduct themselves with any honor or integrity, they have no care for that kind of thing, they've got a job to do and they want nothing to stand in their way.

    They don't care about legalities, they don't care about standards or ethics, or principles, they don't even care to try to keep up appearances. They are only interested in the prearranged results they were charged with delivering. It's their way or the highway. It's who they are. It's what they are.

    1. Anon, yours is one of various possible explanations. One at this point I'm leaning towards. But I want to go through as much of the evidence I can to find specific evidence for and against the various possibilities before coming to my conclusion. Then if someone disagrees with my conclusion, I can ask them to point out where I'm wrong or give me other evidence to prove I'm wrong.

    2. I applaud your desire to remain open to other possibilities for as long as it may take for you to draw your own conclusions. Your coverage of the recent board's shenanigans is exemplary. Alaska residents owe you a debt of gratitude.

      Without a doubt, you've played a role in seeing to it that this board hasn't abused the process even more than they would have if not for the extra scrutiny you and others have helped to provide. In a number of documented instances, you've provided daylight that has caused the chair or the board to revise their preferred actions where it's now known the preference was to ignore or abuse the public process. In several other instances, it's been other people who have pointed out discrepancies or deficiencies, some of which were only then addressed, and even at that, some were not actually remedied.

      And let's not forget the courts have had occasion to shine a little light on the chair's and the board's preference to ignore and abuse the process.

      For me, the recent actions of this current redistricting board isn't the only venue, nor is it the first venue within which I've observed a number of the various players in action. Putting those previous observations alongside the additional evidence which has come to light through the machinations of the current redistricting board hasn't shown me that there has been any substantial change that would point towards some other likely possibility different than what anon at 11:30 has suggested.

      What I see is true to a form that was observable before the current board was put together. I suspect anon at 11:30 has had the opportunity to have viewed a similar set of circumstances. Add up all the evidence and it's hard to assign any other possibility, I have to go with what fits all the evidence and there's no evidence or history that would be contrary to what anon at 11:30 has noted.

      Let's just say that if someone disagrees with me, they are welcome to attempt to revise history, they can attempt to dismiss the record of current events, but none of that would change much of any of the actual reality.

      Let me thank you again for your coverage, it's much appreciated. It's a hope of mine that you'll inspire many more to take up the gauntlet and they too will begin shining a bright light of their own on public affairs.

      As it is, the way this board has conducted themselves, at every turn the public is at risk of being shut out completely, it's just been a continuing travesty now.

  2. This continues to be the best series in any Alaska media on an important public affairs subject. Howard Weaver was a piker compared to this.

    1. Phil, I do appreciate your continuing support of the blog. It would be even more welcome if you could do it without putting someone else down at the same time. :) As I'm reading Weaver's book, I'm reminded of old events and getting insights into what was happening behind the scenes and into some of the issues I wrestle with as a blogger.

  3. I stand by what I said, but will honor your request in the future.


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