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Charter commission looks at city council vacancy process

BEMIDJI — The city’s charter commission wants to change the procedure for filling vacancies on the Bemidji City Council.

The commission discussed amending the charter to trigger a special election if a council vacancy is declared 181 days or more before a general election. If there were 180 days or less left in the term, however, a councilor would be appointed.

Staff, including city attorney Al Felix, will discuss that suggestion before returning to the commission with something more concrete on July 16, said city clerk Kay Murphy.

The discussion comes after the council appointed Reed Olson on Jan. 28 to the empty Ward 4 seat that was vacated by Rita Albrecht after she won the mayoral race in November. Olson’s term lasts through 2014.

The council cited language in the charter that states once a vacancy has been declared, "the council shall forthwith appoint an eligible person to fill the vacancy until the next regular municipal election." It also states that if the council fails to fill the position within 30 days of a vacancy being declared, a special election will be called.

"Quite frankly, they did follow the rules," Murphy said.

Some commission members said after that decision the charter’s intent was to allow the council to appoint a councilor for a short time, not for two years.

"It was like, ‘Oh gosh for two years, shouldn’t we be able to vote?’" said commission member Jaclyn Ryder.

Meanwhile, the commission wants to take a look at making a run for mayor more risky for sitting councilors. City councilors, who are elected to four-year terms, can run in the middle of their term for mayor, who is elected to two-year terms.

If the councilor does not win the race for mayor, they would return to their seat for the remaining two years of the term as councilor.

Commission member Chuck Stombaugh suggested it would be fairer for councilors who declare a mayoral run to vacate the seat as well, allowing others to run for their city council seat. The councilor would still serve the rest of their term while running for mayor, however.

"As far as fairness is concerned, that makes a certain amount of sense," said Charter Commission member Michael Meuers.

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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