Redistricting commission divided on inviting legislative leaders




arizona redistricting
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The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is split on whether to invite Democratic and Republican leaders from the legislature to address the commission, with a majority of members leaning against it.

Commissioners last month first raised the issue of whether the four partisan leaders of the Arizona House of Representatives and Senate should be invited to an AIRC meeting to share their thoughts on redistricting. Independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg said the issue came up during a discussion with legal counsel.

Eric Spencer, the Republican co-counsel for the AIRC, noted that the Arizona Constitution grants the legislature the explicit right to make recommendations after the commission finishes the first draft of its legislative and congressional district maps. Starting that process early, he said, would “extend an olive branch prior to the draft maps being completed in order to create a more cohesive and less adversarial relationship.” 

However, that idea met with a cool reception among some commissioners, and skepticism grew during the subsequent week.

Last week, Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner questioned whether legislators should get a separate opportunity to opine than the rest of the public gets. They are stakeholders, she conceded, but the purpose of the commission is to be independent of the legislature.

On Tuesday, Lerner reiterated her concerns and added new ones, as well. If lawmakers get a special opportunity to address the commission, what about other people or organizations, she asked. Lerner questioned exactly where the AIRC should draw that line.

“I understand the perspective of why that might be helpful, but then I’m not sure where we say yes or no to different groups, because so many have special interests. Do we say no to chambers of commerce? Do we say no to city leaders?” Lerner said. “I’ve started to rethink whether or not we want to have that special opportunity for certain groups or whether we want to just say, come to our public hearings and speak to us from the perspective of your legislative knowledge.”

During normal times, members of the public can address the commission in person, an opportunity that hasn’t been available with the current AIRC, which has only met remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, members of the public can express their thoughts to the commission online, either during the designated public comment period in each meeting or through the commission’s website. 

The AIRC is planning to hold a series of public meetings across the state before it begins drawing its maps to get input from various communities with interests in the redistricting process. The Arizona Constitution requires it to hold another 30 days of public meetings after completing its draft maps. It is during that 30-day period that the constitution invites the legislature to opine on the maps.

Other commissioners from both sides of the aisle shared Lerner’s concerns.

Republican Commissioner David Mehl said the legislature has a formal role to play, which is an important part of the process. 

“But other than that, we do a really significant public process throughout the state. Between that and the ability of people to write in and put comments to us in writing on a day-to-day basis, I think we may have enough opportunity for anyone who wants to speak to us to communicate,” Mehl said.

Derrick Watchman, the other Democratic commissioner, also questioned where the commission should draw the line on inviting other interested parties, such as counties, cities, Native American tribes, chambers of commerce and others. 

“The whole point for public hearings and public meetings is it’s an invitation to everybody, including our legislative leaders,” Watchman said.

Neuberg said the commission should put the issue on a future agenda for further discussion. She continued to voice support for the idea of inviting lawmakers, whom, she noted, are empowered by the Arizona Constitution to select the commission’s four partisan members.

“Part of me is curious about what they have to say,” Neuberg said. “They’re the ones who started the process. And if they’re not integral to the process, why is it that our constitution asks those leaders to begin the process?”

Several members of the public submitted comments to the commission during last week’s meeting urging them not to invite legislative leaders.

Relations between the last redistricting commission and the legislature in 2011 became extremely hostile, culminating in the Senate, which had a Republican supermajority at the time, impeaching independent Chairwoman Colleen Mathis. GOP lawmakers believed Mathis was colluding with the commission’s Democrats to undermine Republican fortunes in the redistricting process. Among the lawmakers’ myriad allegations against Mathis was that she failed to properly consider the recommendations made by the legislature after the draft maps were approved.