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Charter Commission discusses changes annexation will bring to city wards, voter representation

Bemidji's Charter Commission discussed on Tuesday how the influx of new city residents due to annexation will affect the city's wards.

The eight-member Charter Commission holds annual meetings each June and meets throughout the year as needed.

The Commission discusses and suggests changes or revisions to the City Charter, which governs the operation of the city.

With annexation expected in 2010, 2015 and 2020, City Clerk Kay Murphy told the Commission during a meeting Tuesday that the city's wards will, occasionally, be out of balance.

With the U.S. Census poised to begin this coming spring, Murphy said the ward boundaries will be examined and adjusted in time for the 2011 election.

But, by statue, the boundaries cannot be adjusted after the 2015 annexation until 2020, she said.

Minnesota Statute 205.84 states: "After the official certification of the federal decennial or special census, the governing body of the city shall either confirm the existing ward boundaries ... or redefine ward boundaries to conform to those standards."

Wards are supposed to be "as equal in population as practicable," according to the statute, but Murphy said that won't be possible every year.

"I will have wards out of balance for 2010," she said.

Murphy's statements were made during a discussion on whether the city of Bemidji should consider going from ward representation on the Bemidji City Council to at-large representation.

The council currently has five elected ward councilors, one at-large councilor and an at-large mayor.

The Charter Commission was not in favor of all at-large representation due to the possibility of having one part of the city overrepresented and another without representation.

"I think every ward needs to have one representative," said Ben Stowe, Commission member.

City Manager John Chattin, in neither advocating nor opposing a change in representation, said it was a "philosophical question" of how best to represent the city.

Does having ward representation have councilors focusing on their neighborhoods more so than the best outcome of the entire city of Bemidji?, he asked.

He cited the recent decision to pursue a Quality Neighborhood Study as one possible example.

There, the council voted in favor of the QNI study after declining to initiate a moratorium on new rental registrations for single-family neighborhoods.

The rental problem is an issue in two of the city's five wards, Chattin noted.

"Is it up to the councilors of these two wards to get buy-ins from the other five councilors to solve a problem in their ward?" Chattin said. "Philosophically, is it better to have them all focus on, 'Is this a problem that is a citywide problem?' or, 'Is it a problem that is a ward problem?'"

Stowe pointed out that without ward representation, it also is possible that the rental issue never would have risen to officials' attention if councilors all were from outside the ward experiencing the problem.

Commission member Michael Meuers wondered if it would be appropriate in the future, following annexation, to consider having four ward representatives and three at-large representatives, including the mayor.

"We'd still have our wards, but it might be a nice balance," Meuers said.

The Charter Commission has only begun talking about the issue. Staff is doing research on other growing cities in Minnesota that have encountered similar issues.

If the Charter is to be amended, the City Council would have to unanimously approve the change on the third reading of the ordinance. If it is not unanimous, the suggested change would go before the voters, Murphy explained Friday.

Recall language

The Charter Commission also considered language that could be added to the Charter that would allow for the recall of an elected official due to misfeasance or malfeasance in office.

City staff is collecting recall language from other city charters in Minnesota.