Redistricting panel: Will is start over?

by Mary Jo Pitzl – Nov. 1, 2011 12:00 AM
Associated Press

Arizona lawmakers are awaiting a summons from Gov. Jan Brewer to gather at the Capitol on Tuesday to consider removing one or more members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

A special legislative session to take action against the independent commission would be unprecedented.

Voters created the commission 11 years ago to take the power of redrawing legislative and congressional boundaries out of the hands of politicians and give it to an independent five-member panel.

A legislative committee Monday decided to ask the redistricting panel to scrap its work and start over.

“(T)he process used to arrive at the draft congressional and legislative maps is so fundamentally flawed that the resulting maps have been unconstitutionally created and the only remedy is to start the process over,” lawmakers wrote in a report of the Joint Legislative Committee on Redistricting.

The independent commission is concluding a statewide, monthlong comment period on draft maps for new political boundaries that are to be in place for the 2012 election. The commission must make new maps based on population shifts over the past decade and consider six criteria, including protection of minority voting rights and equal population in each district.

Republicans have complained the maps favor Democrats, even though the majority of the districts have a GOP voting edge. They are especially angered by the draft congressional map, which creates a competitive district in central Phoenix and may pit two GOP incumbents against each other.

Democrats have had their own criticisms, particularly on the legislative maps, where Republicans would have strong majorities in 17 of 30 districts. But Democrats have defended the commission process, saying lawmakers shouldn’t interfere with an independent panel.

The governor, who along with the Legislature has some authority over the independent commission, last week asked commissioners to respond to her assertion that they have committed “substantial neglect of duty and gross misconduct” in the process of drawing the new political boundary lines. Those are the key criteria needed for the governor to start removal proceedings against one or more commissioners.

Lawmakers expected a special-session call Monday, but in early evening, Brewer’s office said there would be no immediate action. Brewer is in New York to promote her new book, “Scorpions for Breakfast.”

A special session call could come today, and legislative leaders have told lawmakers to expect a session beginning at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. The Legislature had finished its work in April and is not set to begin its next regular session until January.

A special session would be needed to get the two-thirds vote of the state Senate to remove a commissioner.

Republicans have been pressing for the ouster of chairwoman Colleen Coyle Mathis, a registered independent, for months. There also have been calls for removal of the two Democratic commissioners, José Herrera and Linda McNulty. GOP commissioners Scott Freeman and Richard Stertz, who were “no” votes on the commission’s most contentious issues, have not been the target of the loud complaints that have dogged the commission.

Monday, the four GOP members of the legislative committee voted to forward its report about what it found was a flawed redistricting process to the full Legislature for action. The two Democrats on the committee have boycotted its meetings, calling the process a sham.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said lawmakers can act on the recommendation to start the redistricting process over without a special session. However, he believes a session would add gravitas to the recommendation. And it could dovetail with a call to remove one or more of the commissioners if Brewer indeed does call a special session.

The Legislature must act on its recommendation by Thursday, Biggs said, to ensure it is included in official comments. The 30-day comment period for the congressional map ends Thursday. After that, the commission plans to adjust maps based on the comments it has received.

Earlier Monday, all five commissioners responded to Brewer’s assertion.

Commission attorney Mary O’Grady asked the governor to not interfere with the panel’s work.

“I respectfully urge you to participate no further in efforts to prevent the Commission from completing its work and to end any consideration of removing any Commissioners from office,” O’Grady wrote.

O’Grady also said the governor failed to list specific complaints about individual commissioners, which she said falls “far short” of meeting requirements in the Arizona Constitution.

Under the voter-approved Proposition 106, a five-member citizen panel is charged with drawing legislative and congressional boundaries every 10 years to adjust for population shifts tracked by the U.S. Census. O’Grady noted that voters expressly removed the Legislature and the governor from that process with their vote in 2000.

In a separate response to Brewer, Mathis for the first time replied to allegations that she attempted to line up a unanimous vote and, in the process, violated the state’s Open Meeting Law. Mathis said she did no such thing but instead was trying to get consensus on a mapping consultant as state procurement practices require.

Mathis wrote she “adamantly” disputes statements from GOP commissioners Freeman and Stertz that she tried to get them to vote for Strategic Telemetry as the commission’s mapping consultant. The two may have intuited that she favored the firm, based on her comments during executive sessions, she wrote. But she said she was “unequivocally” not trying to get them to vote for the firm, only to impress upon them the need for a consensus vote.

The commission’s 3-2 vote to hire the firm, which has Democratic ties, fueled partisan concerns about the panel’s work, prompting Attorney General Tom Horne to launch an investigation into whether the panel broke the Open Meeting Law and spurring demands from lawmakers and many “tea party” activists to remove Mathis.

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