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City shakeup: Election outcome changes council dynamics

Rita Albrecht, the newly elected mayor of Bemidji, points Wednesday to final results from her race to her biggest supporter and dad, Earl Hutchinson. Ballot counting in Tuesday’s election didn’t finish until early the next morning. Albrecht defeated current Mayor Dave Larson. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – The Bemidji City Council will look very different in January.

Tuesday’s election produced a new member to the council, a returning councilor and a new mayor, which will leave one council seat vacant. Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson will also return for another term after running unopposed.

The election was also a historic one, as Bemidji elected its first female mayor in Rita Albrecht, the current Ward 4 councilor. She defeated incumbent Dave Larson by a 52.9 to 46.2 percent vote.

“I’m very excited. I’m humbled. It’s kind of an overwhelming feeling to have the support of the community,” Albrecht said. “I think that women who take leadership roles in the community are important and I’m proud that I’m able to do that.”

Albrecht thanked Larson for running a positive campaign. Later in the day on her campaign’s Facebook page, Albrecht wrote that she and Larson plan to have coffee soon to discuss the “do’s and don’ts” of the first six months of office.

Larson, who was first elected in 2010, said he planned on helping make the transition process as seamless as possible. He also said he was happy the two were able to run a “clean campaign.”

“I’m disappointed with the outcome,” Larson said. “But I do respect the voting process.”

Albrecht, a former city employee and a certified planner, was elected to the council in Ward 4 in 2010. Her win during the middle of her term creates a vacancy for that seat, leaving the city council to appoint a member. The vacancy could also be filled by a special election, according to the city charter.

Albrecht said Wednesday she wasn’t sure what direction the council will take in filling that spot. Nancy Erickson, who won the race for Ward 5 over incumbent Greg Negard Tuesday, said she hopes the council will look at having a special election.

Meanwhile, Michael Meehlhause became one of the youngest city councilors in recent memory, or possibly ever, by defeating Derrick Houle for the Ward 1 council seat. Meehlhause, 23, said he was watching election results with friends and supporters Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning when a friend tagged him on Facebook congratulating him on the win.

“It’s exciting and it’s also really humbling,” Meehlhause said Wednesday. “When I went into this I thought being young was going to hurt me more, but a lot of people I talked to said that they wanted to see a younger voice on the council.”

Meehlhause is a substitute teacher at Bemidji area schools and recently graduated from Bemidji State University, where he had some experience with city issues on the BSU Student Senate. He said he learned a lot from Houle throughout the campaign.

He wasn’t the only Meehlhause who won an election Tuesday, however, as his father Gary won a seat on the Mounds View City Council.

“It’s a good day,” Meehlhause said.

While he expressed some concerns that Meehlhause may not understand homeowner issues, Houle said Wednesday that he will work with him in the future.

“If I have concerns I feel very much that I can go to him,” Houle said.  

Albrecht said the election of a female mayor and a young councilor could be an indication that the community is changing demographically or philosophically.

“I think that’s positive for our community that … our community is willing to elect and have a different kind of person serve on the council than has been in the past,” she said.

Erickson will return to the council seat she held from 2001 to 2008 after defeating Negard in the Ward 5 race Tuesday by just 50 votes. Erickson ran for mayor against Richard Lehmann in 2008, but lost.

Erickson said Wednesday the small margin showed that the community was confident that both candidates would represent the ward well, a sentiment that Negard has also expressed.  

Erickson said she received calls Wednesday from people that were happy to see her back on the council. She added that while she stayed attentive to things that were happening in city hall over the past four years, there’s no replacement for being at the table and getting background information from staff.

“There’s a lot of things that occur in work sessions that you never hear about,” she said, adding that there’s been some new policies implemented since she left.

Negard said he found out about the results Wednesday morning, and then congratulated Erickson.

“It’s been a tremendous experience and I’ve been honored to serve,” Negard said. “I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, I’ve gotten to sit in on very interesting topics, and hopefully my decisions have helped the city move forward.”

While there are plenty of new faces on the council, they were confident they would work well together. Albrecht added that she hopes to build on the teamwork that has been evident within the council in recent years.

“I look forward to working with them,” Albrecht said.

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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