State senators voted 21-6 Tuesday to remove the chairwoman of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.
The unprecedented move came on a bid by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer who said Colleen Mathis was guilty of gross misconduct, both in how she operated the commission and in the maps for the 30 legislative and nine congressional districts the panel is charged with drawing.
Brewer had actually sought to also remove Democrats Jose Herrera and Linda McNulty from the give member commission.
"The two Democrats were part of the same operation,'' said gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson. "The governor was convinced they had colluded with Colleen Mathis.''
But Senate President Russell Pearce said the Republicans who control the Senate -- and had to approve Brewer's action by a two-thirds margin -- saw no reason to go that far. And Benson said his boss is "comfortable'' that replacing just Mathis will solve problems on the five-member panel.
In a separate vote, both the House and Senate voted to urge the commission to scrap the draft maps they already have adopted and start from scratch. That resolution says the maps are "fundamentally flawed.''
Legally speaking, the commission has no obligation to pay any attention to that resolution. But Pearce said he expects the panel, once a new chairman is named, to agree to start over.
Benson, however, said he's not convinced that the commission has to throw out everything that already has been done.
In the letter to Mathis firing her, Brewer said that she has been guilty of violating the Open Meeting Law.
Republican members of the commission had told investigators for Attorney General Tom Horne that Mathis called individual members, one at a time, to line up votes to give a contract to Strategic Telemetry to help the commission draw its maps. Horne contends such sequential calls to more than one commissioner on the five-member panel violates the requirement to conduct all business in public.
Brewer also said Mathis broke the requirements in the 2000 voter-approved law by ignoring requirements to create compact districts and protect communities of interest in favor of trying to create as many politically competitive districts as possible.
The governor, in a prepared statement, said she is convinced that removing Mathis "is the right thing.''
"I will not sit idly by while Arizona's congressional and legislative boundaries are drawn in a fashion that is anything but constitutional and proper,'' she said. "Arizona voters must live with the new district maps for a decade.''
But Senate Minority Leader David Schapira said there is no evidence of misconduct. More to the point, he said that Mathis, who called allegations against her "patently false,'' never had a chance to make her case.
"What we have here is a witch hunt ... with a predetermined outcome,'' the Tempe Democrat said. Schapira said that was coordinated by Brewer, Secretary of State Ken Bennett and Attorney General Tom Horne, all Republicans, along with GOP members of the Legislature and the congressional delegation.
Tuesday's Senate vote is not likely to be the end of the fight.
Paul Charlton, Mathis' attorney, said he will ask the state Supreme Court to overturn the action by the governor and the Senate. In fact, Charlton said he wants the justices to allow his client to remain on the commission while the legality of her ouster is litigated.
Commission attorney Mary O'Grady asked the state Supreme Court late Tuesday to block Mathis' ouster. But the Senate completed its vote before she could get a justice to consider the request.
O'Grady said she and the commissioners are weighing what options they have now.
She acknowledged that the constitutional provision which created the commission does give the governor the power to remove commission members who she believes are guilty of gross misconduct.
But O'Grady said that nothing in Brewer's accusation rises to that level. And even in other cases, such as a claim of violation of the Open Meeting Law, the attorney said only a judge -- and not the governor nor the Legislature -- can unilaterally rule that the law was broken.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs countered that the constitution makes removal of commissioners a "political process.'' He said that means the governor and lawmakers can define "gross misconduct'' to mean whatever they believe it is.
Possible court battles aside, the removal of Mathis creates other questions.
One is exactly how her replacement will be named.
By law, the four other commissioners chose her from a list of registered independents that had been interviewed and nominated by a separate panel that normally screens candidates for appellate courts. One option would be for the four commissioners to go back to that original list to choose someone else.
But Tuesday's move also could force that appellate screening panel to start reviewing applications from scratch.
The bigger question is what happens to the legislative and congressional maps which already have gained preliminary approval by the redistricting commission. Because this has never happened before, it is unclear whether the commission, by virtue of having a new member who never participated in any of the debate or the public hearings, has to start over again.
That would push the process back by months. And that, in turn, could endanger having maps ready to use for the 2012 election, especially since the U.S. Department of Justice has 60 days to "preclear'' any changes in voting district lines.
Benson said while Brewer believes the process was flawed, she does not believe it is necessary to start over.
"But it doesn't mean that you can't kind of significantly reevaluate where you're at, how you got there and how you're going to move forward,'' he said. Benson said Brewer thinks there can be "substantive changes'' to the maps.
Pearce said there were not the votes for Brewer's initial desire to also remove the two Democrats. But he said many senators did not believe that is necessary, laying the blame for their complaints about the maps at the feet of Mathis, who was supposed to be the independent, neutral voice.
He said she made it clear "from the beginning'' that she was biased.
For example, Pearce noted that the Democrats and Republicans on the panel were each entitled to an attorney. But he said that Mathis voted with the Democrats to give them their first choice of lawyers -- and to deny Republicans who they wanted.
"I mean, how silly can you get?'' Pearce asked. "And it's gone downhill from there.''
Mathis also was the deciding vote to choose Strategic Telemetry as the consultant to help draw the maps. That move came over the objections of the Republicans who pointed out that firm has strong Democratic ties, having done work for both Barack Obama and John Kerry.
Pearce and fellow Republicans blame Mathis for coming up with congressional maps they say undermine the ability of GOP incumbents to get reelected. And Pearce said the maps ignore requirements to try to keep communities of interest together.
"What do Fountain Hills and Apache Junction (on the outskirts of the Phoenix area) have in common with Bullhead City?'' Pearce asked.
Republicans are less unhappy with the legislative maps which would appear to all but guarantee Republican political dominance of 16 of the 30 districts. Mathis played only part of the role in that, with those maps being approved on a 4-1 margin, with the consent of Republican Scott Freeman.
But there are several instances where the lines put incumbent GOP legislators into the same districts, meaning they would have to run against each other, with only one surviving.
The constitution precludes the commission from considering where incumbents live. But there have been allegations -- all unproven -- that some commissioners ignored that prohibition.
"What I want is a chairman that will help balance that commission to create an honest map, to follow the law and the constitution,'' Pearce said.
Even if there is no legal challenge to the Senate action and the commission gets a new chairman, that does not end legislative action.
Pearce said he wants to ask voters to repeal the 2000 constitutional amendment, once again allowing lawmakers to draw the maps.
That proposition was sold to voters with arguments that lawmakers were interested in only one thing: creating "safe'' districts for themselves and their political allies. But Pearce said he believes the case can be made to voters that the old system is preferable.
"We are elected officials,'' he said. "You can fire us if we don't do that job -- and should if we don't do the job.''
Technically speaking, the letter firing Mathis was signed by Bennett as "acting governor.''
Brewer actually is in New York City promoting her new book "Scorpions for Breakfast.'' And the Arizona Constitution makes Bennett, as secretary of state, the acting governor when the elected governor is out of state.
That absence during the first-ever ouster of a commission member angered Schapira.
"I think it's pretty ridiculous for her to be publicly accusing commissioners of gross misconduct when she's not even here to lead our state,'' he said.