Special session possible to oust one or more on redistricting panel - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Special session possible to oust one or more on redistricting panel

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Posted: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 9:25 am | Updated: 1:23 pm, Fri Nov 11, 2011.

Gov. Jan Brewer could call lawmakers into special session as early as Tuesday to oust one or more members of the Independent Redistricting Commission.

Senate Republicans were told by party leaders to remain available for an afternoon meeting. That is contingent on Brewer following through with her allegations that several have committed offenses, which allow her to remove them from office with the consent of two-thirds of the Senate.

That move would create a constitutional crisis, with an attorney for the commission all but vowing to sue to block the ouster.

In a letter Monday to the governor, Mary O’Grady acknowledged the Arizona Constitution does give her the right to remove any or all commission members “for substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office, or inability to discharge the duties of office.’’

But she told Brewer it is up to the courts and not her — or, by extension, the Legislature — to determine whether the violations alleged have occurred. That includes whether calls made by Colleen Mathis, who chairs the panel, to other commissioners about a pending bid violates the state’s Open Meeting Law.

Similarly, O’Grady brushed aside Brewer’s complaints that the commission did not follow constitutional requirements when crafting draft maps for the state’s nine congressional districts. O’Grady said the question of whether those maps — and separate ones for the 30 legislative districts — meet the requirements of a voter-approved constitutional amendment also rests with the courts.

“The commission itself is a constitutional entity charged to do a difficult, controversial job independent of the state’s political structure,’’ O’Grady wrote to Brewer. “Its independence must be respected and defended.’’

But gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson brushed aside the warnings, saying his boss does not have to wait for a court’s determination that someone broke the law before seeking ouster.

“The constitution specifically prescribes to the governor an oversight role,’’ he said. “That is the authority that she has invoked.’’

And Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said what a judge considers “gross misconduct’’ is irrelevant to whether they can vote to remove a commissioner.

“There’s no case law on it, so it’s defined by the Legislature,’’ said Biggs, who is an attorney. “Gross misconduct is essentially what the Legislature says gross misconduct it.’’

Senate President Russell Pearce agreed that the Legislature is not bound by any specific legal definition. Nor does he believe lawmakers themselves have to settle on one.

“It’s kind of like when one of the (U.S.) Supreme Court judges said (that) they may not be able to define pornography, ‘but I know it when I see it,’ ” Pearce said.

He said commissioners acted improperly in lining up votes to select Strategic Telemetry, a firm with strong Democratic ties, to help draw the maps. And Pearce said panel members ignored several requirements of the 2000 voter-approved initiative, including drawing lines that protect “communities of interest’’ where possible.

That’s also the conclusion reached separately Monday by a special legislative panel formed to review the commission’s work. That committee voted to ask the commission to revamp the maps, both because they believe the commission did not follow proper procedures and because they contend the final district lines are not fair.

That vote was unanimous, but not bipartisan: The Democrats have boycotted all the meetings.

The 2000 voter-approved plan wrests control of the decennial redistricting process from lawmakers, instead creating a five-member commission. Two members are named by elected legislative Republicans and two by Democrats, with those four selecting a political independent to chair the panel.

But almost from Day One, Republicans said that Mathis leans with the Democrats. Not only did her husband worked on the unsuccessful reelection campaign of a Tucson Democratic representative but she helped engineer giving the contract to Strategic Telemetry.

That effort forms the basis for charges of violations of the Open Meeting Law.

Republican commissioners Richard Stertz and Scott Freeman told investigators for Attorney General Tom Horne that Mathis called them ahead of time in a bid to line up votes for that firm. Horne contends that once Mathis contacted two of the four other commissioners on an issue before the panel, even separately, she broke the law.

A judge last week disqualified Horne from investigating because attorneys from his office had previously advised the commission on the law. Horne has since asked Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery to continue the probe.

O’Grady also told the governor she cannot remove Mathis and the two Democrats on the commission, Linda McNulty and Jose Herrera, for refusing to cooperate with Horne’s investigation. The attorney said the fact that a judge disqualified Horne from investigating proves they had legitimate reason.

The most complex questions involve Brewer’s allegations that the commission acted improperly in how it crafted the congressional districts.

Party registration and prior voting patterns suggest that three of the nine districts would be considered politically competitive, with two heavily weighted toward Democrats and four where the Republicans should have an edge. But Republicans have been outspoken in their belief the maps favor Democrats, at least in part because of the districts where incumbent GOP congressmen now find themselves, with several suggesting the commission ignored a prohibition against considering where current lawmakers live in drawing their lines.

Several also have complained that two rural districts ignore requirements to create districts as compact as possible and respect communities of interest. One district in particular stretches from Lake Havasu City around the Phoenix metro area into northeast Pinal County.

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