A judge expressed unease Wednesday about allowing an open meeting law investigation of the Arizona redistricting commission to proceed after attorneys conducting the probe withdrew one of their key claims.
At issue in the court case is whether to shut down or revive an investigation into how commission members hired consultants to help them draw congressional and legislative maps. Critics of the commission believe important decisions about the consultants were made in secret.
The court hearing came as the redistricting effort is moving forward on multiple fronts following Gov. Jan Brewer’s controversial decision to oust the independent chairwoman of the panel.
The Arizona Supreme Court hears arguments Thursday on the commission’s legal challenge to the ouster. At the same time, the vacant chairmanship has attracted 19 applicants whose qualifications and political leanings as professed independents will now be under a microscope. Details about the applicants were released late Tuesday.
The once-in-a-decade process of creating congressional and legislative maps was thrown into disarray after Brewer and the Republican-controlled Senate fired chairwoman Colleen Mathis earlier this month, accusing her of being a closet Democrat. Republicans believe her actions amounted to “gross misconduct” in leading the panel, created by voters in 2000 with the intention of taking lawmakers out of the redistricting process.
Republicans were bothered by the commission’s 3-2 vote in late June to pick the mapping consulting firm Strategic Telemetry. The firm has done work for Democratic candidates, including President Barack Obama, and critics said the Arizona maps could be slanted to favor Democrats.
The three commissioners who voted to hire Strategic Telemetry have said the firm was the best qualified of four finalists, and that the commission — not its consultants — will decide how to draw the maps.
The two Republican commissioners wanted to pick a California firm that worked for the last commission.
A judge on Wednesday heard arguments related to the consultant issue. Attorneys investigating the commission had questioned whether the panel’s deliberations at a June meeting were a sham because the two Democrats and Mathis allegedly had private one-on-one talks that produced a decision prior to action in public. Attorneys withdrew that claim Wednesday.
Attorneys leading the investigation added that the claim could be raised again at a later date and alleged that the three commissioners in question have stonewalled investigators. Both Republicans have provided attorneys leading the investigation with interviews, but Mathis and the two Democrats have refused.
Superior Court Judge Dean Fink hasn’t yet decided whether to end or revitalize the investigation, but said it would be hard to let it move forward without a reasonable basis to believe there was a violation.
Meanwhile, a state screening panel will recommend three finalists for appointment to fill the vacancy created by the ouster of Mathis. The replacement process will go forward at least temporarily, but would be shut down if the Supreme Court reinstates Mathis.
The group of applicants as a whole has minimal experience in government, with some individuals listing virtually no civic involvement and others detailing professional careers in law, engineering and management.
Besides several attorneys, the applicants include a foundation executive, current and former newspaper editors, a university graduate student, a behavioral health consultant and a retired aerospace engineer.
Several of the current applicants are likely to fall out of contention almost immediately because their voter registration status — at least two indicated they were Republicans during the past three years — may not meet legal requirements.
But vetting is expected to go deeper and broader than just the legal requirements.
Mathis’ failure to disclose that her husband had done campaign work for a Democratic legislative candidate provided fodder for her critics, and at least one member of the screening panel has said political leanings and affiliations of spouses of applicants must be examined.
Several applicants reported making contributions to candidates, with Tucson eighth-grader social studies teacher John M. Fife III disclosing that he’s done volunteer work for two candidates, one a Democrat and the other a Republican.
While most of the applicants didn’t refer in their applications to Mathis’ removal controversy, Fife said the redistricting commission “is at a crossroads where the successful completion of citizen-led redistricting is in serious jeopardy.” He said he wants to serve as a voice for “fairness and accountability.”
An observer of Arizona’s redistricting process said the applicants without much background in public life don’t have much chance of being selected because the screening panel “needs hard evidence that the person has the skills and personality to lead this fractured commission.
“I don’t think the commission wants to make a risky, bold choice. They want to choose somebody who is going to go in there and chair meetings,” said Jennifer Steen, an Arizona State University associate professor of political science who is tracking Arizona’s redistricting process.