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A special panel of judges appointed by a Minnesota's Supreme Court chief justice held a public hearing on redistricting in Bemidji Tuesday evening at the Beltrami County Administrative Building. Though a serious issue for many who spoke at the hearing, Judges John R. Rodenberg, left, Edward L. Lynch and Wilhelmina M. Wright found humor in Mike Simpkins' opening remark. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Northern Minnesota residents speak up on redistricting at hearing

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Keeping American Indian tribes at the forefront of the decision-making process was a plea heard frequently by five judges Monday evening.

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A public hearing was held in Bemidji in which a panel heard the opinions of 14 northern Minnesota residents about how new congressional and legislative district lines should be redrawn.

Bemidji was one of eight cities chosen to host a public hearing on redistricting. Redrawing district lines is a federal requirement every 10 years to keep all districts' population the same.

The judges plan to release their decision on Feb. 21, unless the state Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton agree on their own maps.

Several people who spoke at Tuesday's hearing were in favor of keeping American Indian bands together in congressional or legislative districts.

Kathryn Beaulieu, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, asked the panel to consider not splitting up American Indian reservations.

"We should never, as a state, split up any reservation," she said. "Until such time as American Indians are truly represented on all levels of government, no matter how you dice up the congressional or legislative maps, we refuse to be the forgotten American."

Sally Fineday, a representative with the Native Vote Alliance of Minnesota, said fair redistricting for American Indians could mean the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake Reservations should be included in the same Senate and Congressional districts.

She also suggested the three reservations plus the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe be included in one congressional district.

"I encourage you to take a stand, to be fair by including American Indian tribes at the redistricting decision table," Fineday said.

Eugene "Ribs" Whitebird, the District 3 representative with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, was not in favor of keeping all American Indian bands in one district.

"As for congressional districts, I do not believe the interest of Leech Lake or other Native Americans in northern Minnesota are well served by being in one single Congressional district," he said.

He added the district lines should be drawn to include the entire Leech Lake Reservation in one House district and, if possible, to include Bemidji in the same district.

City Councilor Ron Johnson, who is also on the Bemidji Regional Airport Authority committee, said it would be in the Bemidji Regional Airport's best interest to have district lines drawn similarly to how they currently exist.

"The proposed congressional map puts Bemidji in the same district as Duluth," Johnson said. "While we work closely with the Duluth airport, we also compete directly with (them). We feel we have better representation with being in separate districts like we are now."

If Bemidji continues to be split into two congressional districts as it is now, Johnson added, he prefers the airport be included in congressional district 7.

Mike Simpkins, a resident of Beltrami County, said because Bemidji is split between two congressional districts, it gets two Congress members, which he said is a bonus. However, he added, "Bemidji has more in common with Congressional District 7."

Steve Engel, a resident of Guthrie Township in northern Hubbard County, suggested that all of Hubbard County remain in the same congressional district and that the county be placed in the same Senate and legislative district.

"We find it is difficult having in our county two different Senate districts and two different legislative districts," he said. "People are confused. I believe it would also be easier and preferable for county officials to deal with one set of legislators."

Bud Stone, president of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, and Joe Silko, superintendent of the Grand Rapids Public School District, also spoke at the hearing, as did others from around northern Minnesota, including the city of Cohasset.

Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright of the Appeals Court presided over the panel. The other four judges were Ivy S. Bernhardson of Hennepin County, James B. Florey of St. Louis County, Edward I. Lynch of Dakota County and John R. Rodenberg of Brown County.

Members of the public are invited to submit written comments to the panel. Written statements must be received by the panel no later than Friday, Oct. 21. More information on submitting written comments can be found on the panel's website, www.mncourts.gov/?page=4469.

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