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Bemidji City Council recommends retroactive application of 4-year mayoral term

The recommendation suggests that the charter amendment introducing four year mayoral terms became effective in 2020, which would make Jorge Prince’s current term run through 2024.

Bemidji City Hall
Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer file photo

BEMIDJI — Following its regular meeting on Tuesday evening, the Bemidji City Council held a special session to discuss clarification of a 2020 charter amendment that instituted a four-year mayoral term.

The topic has been heavily discussed in recent weeks after questions were raised about when it took effect, something that could impact the current mayor’s term.

The amendment, which stipulates that mayoral terms are to be four years and coincide with presidential elections, was originally proposed by the charter in January 2019 and passed along to the city council where it could have been passed into law with a unanimous vote, however one council member opposed it .

It then went onto the ballot in November 2020, where it passed with 55% of voters in support.

However, questions of whether the amendment was effective for the 2020 election of Jorge Prince were raised, and the city council and charter commission asked to provide clarification, with the commission ultimately declining to provide a recommended interpretation at its Feb. 16 meeting.

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Varying perspectives

The city council’s decision was to recommend the interpretation that the amendment retroactively applied to the 2020 mayoral election, which would make Prince’s current term four years.

This decision was contentious, however, as some council members believed the amendment was never intended to be retroactive.

“I feel like retroactive is pretty firmly defined,” said Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera, who referred to a Minnesota statute that states ordinances are not retroactive unless clearly stated as such. “It’s not stated anywhere that it’s retroactive.”

The need for clarification arose following questions by Prince of whether the city planned to call for a mayoral election in 2022, which is not a presidential year and so in his view conflicts with the city’s charter.

Some, like Prince, view the possibility of this election as a violation of the charter as it’s written.

“The bottom line is the language that the charter has in it is that the term has to coincide with the presidential election,” said Ward 3 Councilmember Ron Johnson. “Our charter says we couldn’t hold an election until 2024.”

Others see a 2022 election for a two-year term as a necessary step before four-year terms would begin in 2024 and do not view it as a conflict.

“In order to get to a presidential election for a four-year term, you would need a two-year election,” explained assistant city attorney Katie Nolting.

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Because the last mayoral election was on the ballot at the same time as the charter amendment, for many voters it was unclear if they were voting for a two-year or four-year mayoral term, with differing understandings even among council members.

“It was my understanding that in (the 2020 election) it was a two-year term and that the candidates were well aware of that,” said At-Large Councilor Daniel Jourdain. “It should be a two-year term until the next presidential race.”

Informed decision making

During the session concerns were also raised about potential conflicts of interest in regards to Prince, and whether he should take part in a discussion that could directly impact his term length.

“I am wondering if this is a conflict of interest for you to be chairing a discussion about yourself,” Rivera said directed toward Prince, “I feel that there is a conflict.”

Prince disagreed that there was a conflict of interest by participating in the meeting’s discussion, but did abstain from the vote when it took place.

The council’s motion provided the city's official position on the interpretation of the amendment, which recommended it be applied retroactively to the 2020 election.

This would make Prince’s term last until 2024, and the city would not hold a mayoral election later this year.

The vote passed 4-2, with council members Rivera and Jourdain opposed.

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Before the vote passed, Jourdain addressed his fellow council members, challenging whether this interpretation was what the voters intended.

“Are we making a fully informed decision on what the people really voted for?” Jourdain said.

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