May 24, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 21

Haines, Juneau unlinked under new district plan

The path to re-election for State Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, cleared a bit this week, as the Alaska Supreme Court reversed course and approved a redistricting plan that keeps Haines separate from Juneau.

The state’s high court on Tuesday said a redistricting plan it ordered last week might violate the federal Voting Rights Act requirement for the new district boundaries to preserve minority voting strength. “A great disruption to the election process” could result, the court said.

Last week’s plan would have included Haines in a legislative district dominated by North Juneau. The court’s action this week effectively returns Haines to a district that includes Sitka, Angoon, Hoonah, Kake, Metlakatla, Prince of Wales Island and other communities. Gustavus, Petersburg and Skagway are in a district with downtown Juneau.

The order applies to the 2012 election and the districts might still be redrawn, the court said.

“I should be careful and say I’m not going to celebrate yet until everything is settled and nobody’s filing any other suits or anything,” Thomas said. “We’ll wait and see, and hopefully it will settle so we can go on.”

Last week, the court ordered the Alaska Redistricting Board to re-draw lines to comply with the Alaska Constitution mandate for districts to be compact, contiguous and share similar socio-economics.

Thomas then appeared set for a match-up with Juneau Rep. Cathy Munoz, a Republican incumbent, in a district that lumped Haines, Gustavus and Skagway with the Mendenhall Valley. About 14,000 of the district’s 17,500 residents would have been from Juneau.

“Before, it was iffy,” Thomas said. “It would have been a challenge in Juneau.”

“This is not a Native vs. non-Native issue,” said Dave Berry, Chilkoot Indian Association tribal administrator. “This is an issue where an existing redistricting map has been approved by the (U.S.) Department of Justice and, at the last minute, the redistricting committee changed that, which we believe, and our attorney believes, is a violation of the civil voting act.”

Berry spoke at a special meeting of the Haines Borough Assembly on Friday, when members unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the borough attorney to file objections against the plan pairing Haines with the Mendenhall Valley.

“We live differently, we move differently and we breathe, as far as I’m concerned, differently than the Mendenhall Valley people,” Berry said. “We have an easier lifestyle and a mellow lifestyle.”

Kimberley Strong, tribal council president of Chilkat Indian Village, also opposed the plan.

Residents at the May 18 meeting voiced support for Thomas, but assembly member Debra Schnabel said the issue goes beyond incumbency.

“If I had landed on the planet this morning and been approached with this, it would never have occurred to me that this was an issue of who was the incumbent and who was not the incumbent representative,” she said. “I would look entirely at the requirement for voting districts to be based on socioeconomic issues.”

Schnabel said Haines is “still in a state of development” and has different concerns from Juneau in terms of fisheries; power and utilities; water and sewer; transportation; emergency services; and solid waste.

“We don’t have a lot in common with Mendenhall, other than Costco,” said resident Norman Hughes.

Resident Kathleen Menke said Haines and Juneau have common socioeconomic interests and said a district with Juneau and Skagway made sense for the Chilkat Valley.

“We share a day ferry with Haines, Skagway and Juneau, we use the Juneau airport, we use the Juneau medical facilities, we share hydropower with Skagway, and our communications - the radio station - is with Haines, Klukwan and Skagway,” she said.

Thomas, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, said he thinks the district lines won’t be changed again before the November general election, but he likely would wait until after the June 1 filing deadline to start displaying campaign signs.

“I’ve been traveling in Anchorage and Juneau and up in Sitka, and there are no campaign signs out anywhere, I think because of the confusion,” he said.