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Bemidji City Council vacancy process to be reviewed

BEMIDJI – Charter commission members plan on taking a look at the process for filling vacancies on the Bemidji City Council.

This comes after Reed Olson was appointed by the council Jan. 28 to fill the Ward 4 vacancy out of a pool of four applicants, and to a two-year term on the council. Rita Albrecht vacated the seat after winning the mayoral election in November.

Some charter commission members and a city councilor have said that the intent of the charter was to let the voters choose their representation, considering the length of the term.

Charter commission chair Casey McCarthy said they’re going to look at making that intent clearer. 

“We’re going to try to make amends to change that language,” McCarthy said.

Charter commission member Chuck Stombaugh said the issue will likely be brought up during their annual meeting in June.

“This is something I plan on bringing up at the next charter commission meeting, in regards to changing what the policy is or how it reads in our charter,” Stombaugh said. “It’s something that as charter commission members, we’re going to have to sit down and hash this thing out.”

The charter states that once a vacancy has been declared, the council “shall forthwith appoint an eligible person to fill the vacancy until the next regular municipal election.” If, however, they fail to fill that vacancy within 30 days, it would have been filled by a special election.

City Councilor Nancy Erickson originally advocated for a special election during the first meeting of the year, but the council chose to appoint a new member, noting the word “shall” in the charter language.

“This wasn’t the intent of the charter,” Erickson said at the council’s meeting to appoint a new member. “The intent was to fill this slot through our process here if it were just a few months, but not two years.”

Erickson said in a follow-up interview that the council had good applicants to choose from, but the choice should have been with the voters.

City Clerk Kay Murphy said vacant seats have been filled in the recent past by a special election. She estimated that holding a special election would cost about $1,000.

Murphy added that there’s no reference in the charter’s vacancy portion to another section that spells out the process for a special election.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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