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Bemidji City Council moves forward with redistricting

In a special session on Friday, the council chose a map option to proceed with for new city ward boundaries.

Bemidji City Hall
Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer file photo
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BEMIDJI — After tabling the topic of redistricting city wards for further discussion during a March 7 meeting, the Bemidji City Council has decided to move forward with one of the options presented to them.

In a special session on Friday, March 18, the council was given four different potential maps that could be selected for new ward boundaries, after council members had previously asked for more than one option to consider.

The delay also allowed council members more time to hear from their constituents and members of the public.

“It’s been wonderful to hear from everybody,” said Ward 1 Councilor Audrey Thayer, noting that she had received multiple calls regarding redistricting ward boundaries. “I’m really grateful they’ve been so active in the redistricting process.”

Of the four examples presented, the two that received the most consideration were Example 1, which was the original suggestion given to the council during their previous session, and Example 4, a new option.

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Both maps addressed issues that exist with the current ward boundaries, namely by ensuring that Bemidji State University’s campus was wholly included in one ward rather than split between two.

Currently, the campus is in both Ward 1 and Ward 3, and this has caused confusion for residents, many of whom are first-time voters, during election years.

“I think that’s my highest priority,” said Ward 5 Councilor Lynn Eaton, “keeping the college in one ward.”

While both Examples 1 and 4 solved this issue by placing the main campus in Ward 1, there were other important differences between the two.

“Example 1 has the straightest lines,” said Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera, who noted the importance of keeping ward lines distinct and following natural boundaries.

Others, however, disagreed and preferred Example 4.

“That seems the most balanced to me,” said Ward 2 Councilor Josh Peterson about Example 4.

Even some members who agreed with Rivera that Example 1 was the best option, still had some concerns about the exact boundaries between wards.

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For Thayer, this concern was a group of six blocks along Mississippi Avenue that are currently part of Ward 1 but would be moved to Ward 4 in the proposed map.

Thayer explained that community members from that area had reached out and said that they identify more with Ward 1 and would like to stay in that district.

“They don’t want to be jumping over into Ward 4,” Thayer said, adding that keeping those blocks in her district was a change she would like to see in the proposal.

If these changes were made, however, it would be likely that others would have to follow to keep populations similar sizes.

“It’s a domino effect,” said City Clerk Michelle Miller, who helped develop the map options that were presented to the council.

Ultimately a motion was made to move forward with the original map from Example 1, which passed 4-3, with Eaton, Thayer, Rivera and At-Large Councilor Daniel Jourdain in favor.

This means that the map from Example 1 will be used to start the ordinance process for finalizing city ward boundaries, with the first reading set to be held on March 21. A public hearing will be held during the second reading on April 4.

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