PHOENIX - State senators voted 21-6 Tuesday to remove the chairwoman of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, throwing the redrawing of the state's congressional and legislative boundaries into limbo.
The unprecedented vote confirmed Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's removal of Tucsonan Colleen Mathis, the lone independent on the panel. Brewer said Mathis was guilty of gross misconduct, both in how she operated the commission and in the maps for the 30 legislative and nine congressional districts the panel is charged with drawing.
Brewer also sought to also remove Democrats José Herrera and Linda McNulty from the five-member commission.
"The two Democrats were part of the same operation," said gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson. "The governor was convinced they had colluded with Colleen Mathis."
But Senate President Russell Pearce said the Republicans who control the Senate - and had to approve Brewer's action by a two-thirds margin - saw no reason to go that far. Benson said his boss is "comfortable" that replacing just Mathis will solve problems on the five-member panel.
Separately, both the House and Senate voted to urge the commission to scrap the draft maps they already have adopted and start over, calling the maps "fundamentally flawed."
The commission has no legal obligation to pay any attention to that resolution. But Pearce said he expects the panel, once a new chairman is named, to agree to start over.
Benson, however, said he's not convinced the commission has to throw out everything that already has been done.
In the letter to Mathis firing her, Brewer said that she has been guilty of violating the Open Meeting Law.
Republican members of the commission told investigators for Attorney General Tom Horne that Mathis called individual members, one at a time, to line up votes to give a contract to Strategic Telemetry to help the commission draw its maps. Horne contends sequential calls to more than one commissioner violates the requirement to conduct all business in public.
Brewer also said Mathis violated the 2000 voter-approved law by ignoring requirements to create compact districts and protect communities of interest, focusing instead on creating as many politically competitive districts as possible.
The governor, in a prepared statement, said she is convinced removing Mathis "is the right thing."
"I will not sit idly by while Arizona's congressional and legislative boundaries are drawn in a fashion that is anything but constitutional and proper," she said. "Arizona voters must live with the new district maps for a decade."
Senate Minority Leader David Schapira said there is no evidence of misconduct. He said Mathis, who called allegations against her "patently false," never had a chance to make her case.
"What we have here is a witch hunt ... with a predetermined outcome," the Tempe Democrat said, coordinated by Brewer, Horne and Secretary of State Ken Bennett, all Republicans, along with GOP members of the Legislature and the congressional delegation.
Tuesday's Senate vote is unlikely to be the end of the fight. Commission attorney Mary O'Grady filed paperwork late Tuesday with the state Supreme Court seeking to block Mathis' ouster. But the Senate completed its vote before she could get a justice to consider the request.
The commission's lawyers will ask the court today to allow Mathis to remain until the court can consider her removal.
While the law creating the commission gives the governor the power to remove commission members who she believes are guilty of gross misconduct, O'Grady said that nothing in Brewer's accusation rises to that level.
And even in other cases, such as a claim of violation of the Open Meeting Law, the attorney said only a judge, not the governor nor the Legislature, can unilaterally rule the law was broken.
Mathis did not immediately return calls seeking comment or whether she intends to try to block the move.
Mathis' removal creates other questions, starting with exactly how her replacement will be named.
The four other commissioners chose Mathis from a list of registered independents who were interviewed and nominated by a panel that normally screens candidates for appellate courts. One option would be for the four commissioners to go back to that original list to choose someone else.
But Tuesday's move also could force the appellate screening panel to start reviewing applications from scratch.
The bigger question is what happens to the legislative and congressional maps that already have preliminary approval by the redistricting commission. Because this has never happened before, it is unclear whether the commission, by virtue of having a new member who never participated in any of the debate or the public hearings, has to start over again.
That would push the process back by months, which could endanger having maps ready to use for the 2012 election, especially since the U.S. Department of Justice has 60 days to "preclear" any changes in voting district lines.
Pearce said there were not enough votes to also remove the two Democrats, which many senators did not believe was necessary, laying the blame for their complaints about the maps at the feet of Mathis, who was supposed to be the independent, neutral voice.
He said Mathis made it clear "from the beginning" that she was biased.
For example, Pearce said Mathis voted with the Democrats to give them their first choice of lawyers, and to deny Republicans who they wanted. "I mean, how silly can you get?" Pearce asked. "And it's gone downhill from there."
Mathis also was the deciding vote to choose Strategic Telemetry as the mapping consultant, over the objections of the Republicans who pointed out that firm had worked for Democrats Barack Obama and John Kerry.
Republicans also blame Mathis for congressional maps they say undermine the ability of GOP incumbents to get re-elected. Pearce said the maps ignore requirements to try to keep communities of interest together.
"What do Fountain Hills and Apache Junction (on the outskirts of the Phoenix area) have in common with Bullhead City?" Pearce asked.
Republicans are less unhappy with the legislative maps, which would appear to all but guarantee Republican political dominance of 16 of the 30 districts. Mathis was part of a 4-1 vote to approve those maps, along with Republican Scott Freeman.
The constitution precludes the commission from considering where incumbents live. But there have been allegations, all unproven, that some commissioners ignored that prohibition.
Even if the ouster withstands a legal challenge, that does not end legislative action.
Pearce said he wants to ask voters to repeal the 2000 constitutional amendment, once again allowing lawmakers to draw the maps.
Technically speaking, the letter firing Mathis was signed by Bennett as "acting governor," filling in for Brewer, who is in New York City promoting her new book, "Scorpions for Breakfast."
That absence during the first-ever ouster of a commission member angered Schapira, who said, "I think it's pretty ridiculous for her to be publicly accusing commissioners of gross misconduct when she's not even here to lead our state."
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