Sunday, June 26, 2011

Redistricting -- mapping consultant issues

Partly because of technical difficulties causing delay in posting the recording of Friday's meeting, I will offer some observations about the mapping consultant interviews.  As of this writing, the recording is still not available online.

The first thing readers and everyone interested in this pending IRC decision should know is that each and every one of the interviewees had some downside factors.  None was a slam-dunk for selection.

Commissioners asked each of the interviewed firms about political bias. This factor seemed almost as important as perceived competence at the task of drawing the new district maps.

TerraSystems Southwest, the last firm interviewed was the only firm without obvious perceived political bias.  Unfortunately, they were also the least experienced of the bidders.  The Tucson based company is very confident (and perceived as competent) in Geographic Information Systems.  Its principals, Howard Ward (20 years experience as a GIS professional, including five as GIS manager for the Pima County Dept. of Transportation) and Cheryl Thurman (15 years experience as a GIS professional), however, have no redistricting experience.  IRC Commissioner Dick Stertz remarked that their lack of experience in presenting redistricting plans for DOJ (the US Dept. of Justice) pre-clearance is a significant problem.

TerraSystems public relations partner has some good ideas for outreach and feedback aggregation strategies, but dramatically flubbed a question about prioritization of the six voter mandated criteria.  So, I'd have to figure that TerraSystems is a serious underdog at this time.

Research Advisory Services is a Phoenix based firm with extensive experience in redistricting.  Nobody involved or interested in this year's redistricting in Arizona can even come close to legitimately questioning RAS' competence.  President Tony Sissons has successfully handled redistricting projects for more than a dozen Arizona counties, cities and towns.  He has done GIS and demographic work for a long list of associations, higher education institutions, economic development concerns, law firms, and news organizations besides work for political campaigns.  Sissons is a member of Local First Arizona and the Governor's Council on Workforce Policy (including under Republican Gov. Brewer).

As I also mentioned in a previous post, a special interest group called Fair Trust sent Mike Liburdi, a Snell and Wilmer attorney to be its attack dog before and after the interviews on Friday.  Before the interviews, Liburdi said the IRC should consider the political contributions of the applicants before making a decision.  After the interviews, the attack dog brought out copies of information he obtained on some contributions made by Sissons and Strategic Telemetry's Ken Strasma.  But he presented no information on political activity by the other applicants.  Since Sissons has contributed to GOP candidate campaigns (like John Shadegg's Congressional campaign) it's a given that what Liburdi provided was neither adequately comprehensive nor otherwise relevant.

One also must consider a mysterious group with "Fair" in its name to be suspect. An initial search of the Arizona Secretary of State's website doesn't turn up any info on a group named Fair Trust.  I'll call on Monday to see if I can find out more.  My understanding is that in order for a group to be raising money to exert political influence in our state, they must be registered with the SOS.

Another commenter, Kenneth Moyes, representing Citizens for Commonsense Redistricting, essentially echoed Liburdi and stated that work done by Sissons and by Strategic Telemetry for Democratic candidates amounts to a political agenda.  What Moyes and Liburdi both failed to do was establish that the work about which they complained was done for anything other than strictly business interest.  Fee paid for services rendered.  Sissons' client list shows a very diverse range of political interests his work has supported.

Commissioner Stertz asked all of the interviewees about their understanding of and beliefs about Communities of Interest versus competitiveness as relates to the task at hand.  Sissons was the only candidate that had clear, specific insight on the issue.  He said communities of interest, for redistricting purposes, should be, of course, defined by public input.  More specifically, credible calls to be a community of interest must define a geographic area (generally small), citing specific common interests.  Further, Sissons said he believes many people use the term "Communities of Interest" as "code" for safe districts.

The commissioners acknowledged Sissons' well prepared and very detailed proposal.  That's noteworthy in that it dramatically contrasted Douglas Johnson's proposal.  Johnson apparently has 32 years of experience in the business. Overall, my impression is that Johnson was taking it for granted that he would get the contract.  Based on comments made by commissioners, he certainly did not go all out in ensuring a well prepared offer.

In Johnson's interview, whenever a question was presented by (any) one of the commissioners criticizing or asking about any criticism of Johnson or NDC, Johnson's response was -- each and every time -- oh, that was someone else's fault. 

Every single commissioner was aware of the sloppiness of Johnson's proposal.  There apparently were numerous typographical errors.  In a reference to one of Johnson's team members, a Dr. Lisa Hanley, the proposal actually said, "Dr. Lisa Hauser."  Now, some might wonder if that's some kind of Freudian disclosure of Johnson's political bent.

During public comments prior to the interviews, former AIRC Vice-chair Andi Minkoff (2001 -- 2011) had some poignant words to say about Johnson and NDC. The former commissioner read into the record a letter she wrote about National Demographics Corporation.

Minkoff's letter can be found here (page one) and (page two).  Ms. Minkoff previously also had written a letter to California's newly constituted Independent Redistricting Commission, found here (page one) and here (page two) about her experience with NDC.

To me, Johnson's interview and what the commissioners had to say about his proposal are dramatic and timely examples of the kind of shabby workmanship that Ms. Minkoff described in her letters and comments.

As to Strategic Telemetry, I was very skeptical from the start.  Clearly, most of the work Ken Strasma's firm has done has been for Democratic candidates.  Except for that notoriously "liberal" Republican-turned Independent Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City.  Frankly, Strasma's presentation was head and shoulders above all three other firms' presentations.

Prior to starting this company, Strasma had done redistricting work in 30 states.

The most noteworthy observation I could make is that questioning regarding political bias took a different tone than with the other candidate firms.  Commissioner Stertz, a hardcore Republican, clearly seemed impressed by Strasma and asked several times how, if hired, he would suggest the commission respond to those concerned about Strategic Telemetry's perceived bias.  Strasma responded, much the same each time, by emphasizing the meticulous documentation and transparency he provides, has provided before and is prepared to provide at every step in the process.

Strasma was very detailed and thorough in his proposal, again, in great contrast to Doug Johnson and NDC.  Strasma also described a strong technology infrastructure, ability to start immediately, understanding of the DOJ preclearance process and a comprehensive process for collecting, cataloging and indexing public input.

Strasma also seemed to be best prepared to provide training that would allow the commissioners to become fully comfortable understanding and using the software that will be used in drawing the maps.  That goes to remarks Commissioner McNulty made weeks (or perhaps a couple of months) ago that lead me to understand she was not willing to be put in the kind of bind NDC put the last AIRC in.  

The bottom line is that regardless of each commissioner's political affiliation, they ALL want to do the best job they can with the responsibility they have taken on.  None of them is lazy and all have clearly been doing their homework.

The easy thing to do is compare the timeline this year with that of the first AIRC.  But this group knows they want to do things differently.  And they are proceeding deliberately to make it happen this year in a way that they will be proud of in the years to come.


The next meeting will take place on Wednesday afternoon.  Originally, I had been told it was to be held in Tucson.  That is likely to change.  The latest word I have is NOON, Wednesday, June 29 in Phoenix.  More specific details will be available tomorrow.


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