By Jeremy Duda
Published: October 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Gov. Jan Brewer demanded answers from the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission about a handful of alleged improprieties, the first step in the process for forcibly removing one or more of the commissioners.

Brewer today sent a letter to all five commissioners seeking a response to allegations that the IRC violated open meeting laws, public records laws and the constitutionally mandated criteria for redistricting. The letter comes as Republican lawmakers, conservative activists and others have been clamoring for a special session of the Legislature to remove IRC Chairwoman Colleen Mathis, who has been accused of colluding with the commission’s two Democrats.

The governor accused the commissioners of “substantial neglect of duty and gross misconduct in office,” repeating verbatim the provision in the Arizona Constitution that details the grounds for removing a commissioner from the panel. The removal of a commissioner requires the approval of the governor and two-thirds of the Senate.

“I am duty bound to ensure that Arizona’s redistricting process is constitutionally sound and worthy of the full faith and confidence of Arizona voters,” Brewer wrote. “The IRC has violated constitutional requirements.”

The five commissioners did not return messages seeking comments. IRC Executive Director Ray Bladine said the commissioners were working on a response to Brewer’s “serious allegations.”

“Hopefully, that will resolve the matter, because continuing down this precarious path could end up sticking the taxpayers with substantial legal expenses,” Bladine said in a written statement. “The commission has worked hard to incorporate all six constitutional criteria and is certainly interested in improving upon the draft maps.”

In her letter, Brewer cited a section of the Constitution requiring the governor to serve written notice to any commissioner before the removal process can be initiated. She demanded responses from the commissioners by Oct. 31, though the Arizona Constitution does not stipulate a timeframe.

Brewer requested responses to a number of complaints, including allegations that:
• Commissioners had private conversations with each other to pre-arrange votes to award a contract to Strategic Telemetry, a mapping consulting firm with deep ties to Democratic candidates and causes.
• Commissioners had conversations with each other about awarding a perfect score to Strategic Telemetry to improve its evaluation for the IRC’s procurement process.
• Commissioners refused to cooperate with an investigation by Attorney General Tom Horne in to alleged open meeting violations.
• The IRC abandoned the “grid map” it is required to start the redistricting process with and unconstitutionally used competitiveness as the primary factor in drawing a congressional district based in Tempe and central Phoenix.
• The commission violated constitutional requirements on compactness and the use of visible geographic features when it drew two proposed rural congressional districts.
• Commissioners hired multiple attorneys to represent them individually in Horne’s investigation without the legal authority to do so.

Horne has unsuccessfully sought much of the same information from the commission. He is trying to force the commissioners to testify in his investigation.

“I believe good-faith answers can cast much needed light upon the actions of the IRC. This is your opportunity respond to the issues raised above and to the following list of IRC actions contributing to substantial neglect of duty and gross misconduct in office,” Brewer wrote.

The Arizona Democratic Party accused Brewer of a “power grab,” saying she and Republican legislators would only be satisfied with maps that guarantee “total GOP control” of the state.

“Gov. Brewer is drunk with power,” Democratic Chairman Andrei Cherny said in a press release. “She is moving toward impeachment of citizens on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission simply because these volunteers have fulfilled their duty to draw fair and competitive districts. Such a brazen power grab would rival any in Arizona history.”

The letter represented an apparent change of heart for Brewer, who told Arizona Capitol Times on Oct. 20 that she had no indication that there would be a special session. She indicated that she would wait until after the IRC’s 30-day public comment period ends on Nov. 5, and expressed hope that the commission would make changes that would make a special session unnecessary.

Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said he wasn’t aware of the governor’s comments and didn’t know why she had apparently changed her mind on the issue.

“The issues surrounding the IRC have continued to be a concern for the governor. She believes that now is the time for the IRC members themselves to speak to some of these allegations,” Benson said.

It is unknown whether the new members of the IRC would have enough time to complete the redistricting process if one or more commissioners were removed. The U.S. Department of Justice has 60 to 90 days to approve or reject Arizona’s proposed maps, and candidates for elected office will need time to collect signatures and organize their campaigns before the May 30 filing deadline.

If the process were not finished in time, a lawsuit could force a panel of three federal judges to draw the maps themselves, as happened in 1992 with Arizona’s congressional districts.

Benson said the governor believes the maps can be redrawn, or at least altered, in time to avoid having judges draw the maps that Arizona will use for the next 10 years.

“We’re not willing to concede that that’s where this has to end up. For that matter, again, we are at step one here in terms of just seeking answers from some of these members,” he said. “There’s nothing to say that a new commission would have to start from scratch.”

Benson also said the letter was not necessarily a precursor to the removal of one or more commissioners, but would not say what response or what changes to the maps would be sufficient to head off a special session. The IRC has not yet finalized the map, which is subject to change once it concludes its second round of hearings on Nov. 5.

If Brewer initiates the removal process, it is unknown whether she and the Senate would focus only on Mathis, an independent, or expand it to include the commission’s two Democrats and two Republicans.

If Mathis were ousted, Democratic Commissioners Jose Herrera and Linda McNulty and Republican Commissioners Scott Freeman and Richard Stertz would choose a new chair from a pool of three candidates selected by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments.

Brewer also submitted her official comments on the maps. In the separate letter, said the IRC did not respect communities of interest, did not create compact and contiguous districts, disregarded geographic and political boundaries, ignored the needs of rural Arizonans and elevated competitiveness above all other constitutional criteria.

She specifically objected to congressional districts that cut Yuma and Cochise counties in half, and referred to proposed Districts 1, 3 and 4 as “patently tortured and spliced.” District 9, which includes Tempe and the Arcadia, Biltmore and Ahwatukee Foothills areas of Phoenix, was drawn in violation of the IRC’s six constitutional criteria, she alleged.

“I have many concerns about the draft map. The concerns are so grave that I believe the IRC has not satisfied its constitutional duty requiring it to conduct this vital electoral activity in an honest, independent and impartial fashion that upholds the public confidence in the integrity of the redistricting process,” Brewer wrote.