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After second vote, Bemidji City Council passes new city ward map 6-1

In a contentious meeting on Monday night, the Bemidji City Council voted to reject, before reconsidering and adopting, a map for redistricting the city’s wards.

Bemidji City Hall
Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer file photo

BEMIDJI — Despite passing by the end of the night, the Bemidji City Council’s initial vote on an ordinance establishing new city wards did not go as expected on Monday.

The council’s April 18 session included the third reading of the ordinance and its final vote, but instead of narrowly passing as anticipated, the measure failed 4-3. After an hour of heated discussion and comments, the vote was reconsidered and finally passed 6-1.

The first vote on the ordinance Monday night saw Mayor Jorge Prince, Ward 2 Councilor Josh Peterson and Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson vote against the new boundaries, consistent with their positions on the map from previous discussions.

However, Ward 1 Councilor Audrey Thayer joined in opposition, citing concerns with how the process of redistricting had gone and expressing a desire for more public input.

“I don’t feel the process was handled the way we should,” Thayer said, “we didn’t do our due diligence.”

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The redistricting process began for the city council during a session on March 7, which saw just one option for new ward boundaries presented by city staff. It was decided during that meeting to table the topic to allow for more maps to be developed and considered.

Criticisms arose from some members of the public both on the lack of options presented and the delay tabling the topic imposed. Even with the original timeline council members were given, Bemidji would not have been able to meet the state’s deadline of March 29 for municipal redistricting.

“I think we should be embarrassed, we had the information many weeks prior,” Thayer said. “We are way behind.”

Thayer’s decision to vote against the proposed map drew immediate criticism from other members of the council who expressed concerns that not adopting the ordinance would only create further problems.

“This is embarrassing,” At-Large Councilor Daniel Jourdain said in response to the first vote’s outcome. “This is a shock to the city and to the constituents.”

If the initial vote had remained, the city would have had to begin the redistricting and ordinance process all over again. This would have included the need for city staff to develop new maps and for another public hearing to be scheduled.

“There aren’t enough hours in a day for staff to do what you’re asking them to do,” Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera said. “I really am appalled that this is where we’re at.”

The decision to reject the ordinance would have also delayed redistricting for Beltrami County, which requires the information of Bemidji’s legislative districts for its own process.

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“We got to this point, we have a responsibility to move something forward,” Rivera said. “I’m not comfortable leaving here tonight without an action that will allow the county to move forward.”

Even members of the council who had opposed the ordinance expressed some shock at the vote’s outcome.

“We do not have a redistricting plan and that was not expected tonight,” Prince said immediately after the first vote.

Each of them stood by their position to oppose the ordinance, at least initially.

“Councilor Rivera reminds me to think about the county, I’m thinking about the citizens,” Prince said. “We have failed, not necessarily in this vote tonight, but much earlier in the process.”

Another vote

Opinions changed, however, as the potential consequences of a failed redistricting vote became clear.

“This is a self-created emergency,” City Attorney Alan Felix said. “You are putting the city in a terrible position, and that’s not legal advice.”

In addition to having to restart Bemidji’s redistricting and delaying the county’s process, if the decision to reject the proposal had remained, it would have also created challenges for the upcoming election filing period.

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New city wards would likely not have been completed by the time the filing period opened on May 17, meaning potential candidates might not even know what districts they would be eligible to run in.

It would also have prevented ballots from being printed since the information on them would have been liable to change.

“You will create chaos that goes beyond your control, the county’s control,” Felix said to the council. “And who suffers? You won’t, your constituents will.”

This led to a change of heart for some of the council members who had voted against the ordinance, with Prince moving to reconsider the vote.

“I’m sitting here and fully recognizing the chaos that (decision) will create,” Prince said. “I can’t put our citizens through that.”

Despite the changing mindset, those who had opposed the proposed map made it clear that they were still unhappy with how the redistricting process had unfolded.

“We’ve ended up with this process that’s left a lot of us unsatisfied,” Prince said.

Some of those who had supported the ordinance also agreed that there were problems with how the city had gone through redistricting, but thought the best way to address those issues was to finalize a decision.

“Flawed as it was, we’ve done the steps and made a decision,” Ward 5 Councilor Lynn Eaton said. “Admit the mistake, fix it and move on.”

After the first vote was reconsidered and reversed, the ordinance was given a second chance to pass. This vote for the proposed map passed 6-1, with all but Johnson in support.

With the now accepted map, Johnson no longer lives in Ward 3, and resides in the Ward 1 boundaries. This means he can finish his current term, which is set to run through 2024, but will not be eligible to run for the same district again.

Even after passing, it was clear that those who had changed their vote to pass the ordinance, Prince, Peterson and Thayer, were still not wholly satisfied with the outcome.

Thayer and Prince said that although they supported the new map in the second vote, they did this for the best interest of their constituents but their concerns about the process remained.

“I am not walking away feeling good about my vote,” Thayer said. “What happened here is a travesty.”

Other business

Prior to discussing redistricting, the council also heard an annual report by Greater Bemidji, proposed a feasibility study for different potential uses of the Neilson Reise Arena, and heard about planned street renewal projects for the next five years.

Another topic that received substantial discussion was the possibility of installing solar panels on the Tourist Information Center.

The full recording of the council meeting can be viewed on the city's website www.ci.bemidji.mn.us .

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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