PHOENIX — The start of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s statewide listening tour could be pushed back as it finalizes details and sorts out details on when it can hold meetings in areas where public gatherings are still limited due to COVID-19.
The commission included a tentative schedule for its tour in its agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, with the first in-person hearing slated for June 17 in Coconino County. The schedule calls for one or two public meetings per week through mid-August, when the AIRC is expected to receive the census data it will need to draw Arizona’s new congressional and legislative districts.
At Tuesday’s meeting, several commissioners said the schedule may need revisions. Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman said members of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors recently informed him that public meetings won’t be permitted in the county until the start of July, and that similar issues exist for Apache and Navajo counties, which are scheduled as the site of the commission’s second public hearing on June 24.
Watchman, who is Navajo, also noted that the Navajo Nation is not yet open for public forums. He said he’d like to have a hearing on the reservation.
Shereen Lerner, the other Democratic commissioner, said beginning the listening tour in Maricopa or Pima county would allow the AIRC to work out the bugs before the commissioners began traveling the state. Not every commissioner has to attend every meeting, she said, and they’ll have the option of attending some remotely, as well.
Thus far, the AIRC has only met virtually.
Lerner also said the meeting schedule may be too spread out and recommended condensing it. She noted that the 2011 commission held 15 such meetings in three weeks. She said she wasn’t necessarily recommending the same schedule for the current AIRC, but that a more condensed schedule would give the commissioners time to process the comments before they begin work on the new districts.
Another upside to postponing the start of the tour, Lerner said, is that it would give the commission more time to finalize times and locations for the meetings. Some members of the public might need more than a week to plan ahead if they want to attend, especially in rural areas, she said.
And condensing the schedule would give the commissioners a better opportunity to attend back-to-back meetings in person, Republican Commissioner David Mehl said. He echoed Watchman’s comments on postponing the AIRC’s meetings in northern Arizona to accommodate ongoing restrictions.
The tour is the first of two that the commission expected to make around the state. The AIRC is required to hold a series of hearings across Arizona to receive public input once it completes the initial draft of its congressional legislative district maps.
Though the AIRC isn’t expected to have the data it needs to begin its work in earnest until Aug. 16, independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg said the commission can learn a lot about people’s desires for redistricting through its tour. Perhaps most importantly, she said, the commissioners will be able to learn a great deal about communities of interest.
“Community of interest” is an expansive term that can be used to define any grouping of people with common concerns. It can be a neighborhood, a racial, ethnic or religious community, people with similar economic interests, a geographic grouping, or a grouping of people who all rely on a particular transportation system.
One of the Arizona Constitution’s six redistricting criteria that the AIRC must follow is respect for communities of interest.
“I am particularly interested in hearing who feels that they’re a community of interest, why are they a community of interest, how have the districts performed for them in the past, what do they feel has not worked for them? And, so, I do think it would be helpful to have a little guidance to be trying to find the information that will be helpful for us to do the end product,” Neuberg said.
Mehl said he strongly agreed with Neuberg’s assessment.
“Since we don’t have data, those are going to be by far the most important things that we’re going to hear from the public,” he said.
The commissioners also decided on Tuesday to reject a proposal to invite Democratic and Republican legislative leaders to address the AIRC. Neuberg had said she was interested in hearing what they had to say, and one of the commission’s attorneys said it would help establish a friendly relationship between the AIRC and the legislature, which is tasked by the state constitution with providing input on the draft maps once they’re completed.
Neuberg acknowledged that the issue was a “hot spot” in the public comments submitted to the commission, and other commissioners shared those concerns.
“I agree with many of the public comments that it’s not a good idea to have the legislators present. I think they have an official role to present after the draft maps, and I think to have them sooner than that is not wise,” Mehl said.
Neuberg scrapped the idea after the other four commissioners voiced their opposition, saying, “I think the community and the commission have spoken.”
Jeremy Duda is associate editor of the Arizona Mirror, a nonprofit independent Arizona news organization.