An attorney for the Independent Redistricting Commission all but vowed to sue Gov. Jan Brewer if she attempts to oust panel members based on her list of allegations.
Mary O’Grady acknowledged the Arizona Constitution does give the governor the right, with the consent of two-thirds of the Senate, 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 in a letter Monday to the governor, O’Grady said that requires providing each member with notice of specific violations that rise to that level. She said a general letter to all five commissioners — and three days to respond — is “patently insufficient.’’
More to the point, O’Grady told Brewer that it is up to the courts and not her to determine whether certain violations alleged by the governor have occurred. That includes the question of whether calls made by Colleen Mathis, who chairs the panel, to other commissioners violations the state’s Open Meeting Law.
In fact, O’Grady noted, the question of whether the commission is subject to that law is currently being litigated in court.
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. She said the ultimate question of whether those maps meet the requirements of a voter-approved constitutional amendment also rests with the courts.
In separate responses, Mathis and the two Democratic commissioners, Linda McNulty and Jose Herrera, denied they had done anything to merit their removal.
Republicans Richard Stertz and Scott Freeman, in their own responses, said they, too, had done nothing wrong. But that is based on the fact that they disagreed with the actions the other three had taken.
O’Grady’s response draws a line in the sand in what has become a highly partisan fight over redistricting.
“The commission itself is a constitutional entity charged to do a difficult, controversial job independent of the state’s political structure,’’ the lawyer wrote to Brewer. “Its independence must be respected and defended.’’
But gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said his boss will not back down.
“The constitution specifically prescribes to the governor an oversight role,’’ he said. “That is the authority that she has invoked.’’
He also rejected O’Grady’s contention that Brewer has to provide each commissioner a specific list of charges.
How quickly Brewer will react formally, though, remains unclear. The governor is in New York City to promote her book, “Scorpions for Breakfast.”
Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2000 wresting control of the process of drawing new congressional and legislative lines from lawmakers and instead creating the 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. That includes not only the fact that her husband worked on the unsuccessful reelection campaign of a Tucson Democratic representative but that she helped engineer giving the contract for a mapping consultant to a firm with strong Democratic ties.
That effort forms the basis for charges of violations of the Open Meeting Law.
Stertz and Freeman told investigators for Attorney General Tom Horne that Mathis had called them ahead of time in a bid to line up votes for Strategic Telemetry. 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.
In her letter to the governor, O’Grady said it is premature to use the allegations as the basis for removing commissioners.
“If a court determines that commissioners violated the constitution’s open meeting requirements, then it would be appropriate for you to consider whether action against the individual commissioners involved is warranted,’’ the attorney wrote.
Benson sidestepped questions of whether his boss really needs to wait until there is a legal ruling.
“I’m not going to go point by point through these letters,’’ he said.
O’Grady also said Brewer has no basis to say that Mathis and the two Democrats can be removed 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.