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Bemidji City Council discusses redistricting city wards

The primary topic at Monday’s session was the proposed new city ward maps, and whether to proceed with them.

Bemidji City Hall
Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer file photo
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BEMIDJI — The Bemidji City Council was presented with a map of proposed new city wards during Monday’s session, as government bodies around the country begin the process of redistricting their legislative maps.

Redistricting is intended to be an impartial process that happens every 10 years and follows the release of census data. It works to ensure that each legislative district has an equal number of constituents and fair representation.

With the current population of Bemidji, each redistricted ward should have around 3,089 residents, though city staff also attempted to leave room in some wards for anticipated growth in the north and west.

The proposed new city wards institute fairly minimal changes, but City Clerk Michelle Miller, who also helped with the redistricting plan, noted that it solves some areas of disclarity that communities have had with the current districts.

Bemidji State dorm halls, for example, would no longer be separated into two different wards, something that had caused some confusion for students looking to vote during elections.

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“That has been constant confusion, at least every presidential election,” Miller said.

There were some concerns raised over the proposed plan, however, namely from Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson who with the new districts would no longer live in his ward and wouldn’t be eligible to represent it.

“I’ve represented Ward 3 on the city council for 22 years. . . so it’s rather alarming,” Johnson said. “I’m not advocating one thing or the other, but it is a change.”

Johnson went on to acknowledge that city staff don’t create a redistricting map with the intent to keep or force out any sitting representative, but expressed his wish that there had been more than one option presented to the council.

With this in mind, Johnson shared a redistricting plan he drew up himself with the council, one that would keep him in Ward 3 and, he argued, would keep the populations of each ward more equal.

Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera supported the plan proposed by the city staff, noting that losing a seat to redistricting is always a potential outcome.

“This is not an uncommon thing,” Rivera said, “there was a potential that this might be a reality.”

Time constraints

The city council also faces a fast approaching deadline to turn in a redistricting plan to the state, something that is further exacerbated by the steps necessary to formally institute a new map.

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Redistricting results are due on March 29, but because the city’s process requires an ordinance, which in turn requires three separate readings, the soonest that it could take effect would be on April 4.

“We’re operating under constraints we can’t control,” said City Attorney Alan Felix, who also noted that, while not ideal, there aren’t necessarily severe consequences if the process isn’t complete by the deadline.

Even with the time limit in mind, a number of council members expressed a desire to spend more time considering the plan and other potential options.

“(The proposed plan) seems logical, but I also haven’t seen any alternatives,” said Mayor Jorge Prince.

This sentiment was echoed by Ward 2 Councilor Josh Peterson, who argued that redistricting is a process that should include options and be given due consideration.

“I like options, and this is something people shouldn’t rush,” Peterson said.

Other council members disagreed and believed that the proposed plan should be selected as is and should move onto a second hearing at the next council meeting.

“I, myself, would trust the staff,” At-Large Councilor Daniel Jourdain said, “I trust that this (plan) is accurate.”

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A motion to move forward with the ordinance to a second reading was proposed, but failed 3-4.

Rivera, Jourdain and Ward 5 Councilor Lynn Eaton supported the motion, with the rest of the council opposed.

A subsequent vote to table the topic until the session on March 21 passed with all but Jourdain and Rivera in favor. This move allows for further discussion during a work session or special meeting.

The council meeting also saw the approval of an agreement between city, county and state agencies for the planned project on U.S. Highway 71 and Anne Street that would include the construction of a roundabout and reduced conflict intersections.

Alexis Joyce was also sworn into the Bemidji Fire Department as the city’s first full-time female firefighter.

Related Topics: BEMIDJI CITY COUNCIL
Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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