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Lucachick, 30 others file lawsuit against Beltrami County Board over redistricting

County Commissioner Jim Lucachick and 30 others have filed a lawsuit alleging the map chosen for redistricting does not follow state statute and engages in gerrymandering.

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Beltrami County
(Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI — Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Lucachick and 30 other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit on Monday, May 9, against the Beltrami County Board over redistricting, alleging that the map selected for the new district boundaries fails to comply with the requirements laid out by the state’s redistricting statutes.

Lucachick and the other plaintiffs are requesting that the court issue an order to compel the board to revise its redistricting plan. If the county fails to do so, they are requesting that the court appoint an independent redistricting commission.

The plaintiffs are represented by John Steffenhagen, a lawyer based in Edina, Minn., who had previously represented Bemidji Township in a lawsuit disputing annexation between the township and the city of Bemidji.

Beltrami County began its redistricting process in February and adopted a new set of district boundaries in a meeting on April 19 . The decision was made 3-2, with District 1 Commissioner Craig Gaasvig and District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick in opposition.

The chosen map, which was one of seven total options presented to the board, also places Gaasvig and Lucachick in the same district, meaning that they would have to run against each other if both were interested in reelection.

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One of the guidelines decided by the county board itself for its own redistricting process was to ignore the addresses of any commissioner so that personal conflicts of interest would not influence a decision.

The lawsuit alleges that the chosen map does not follow the requirements outlined either by state statute or the board’s own guidelines.

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Allegations

Among the complaints included in the lawsuit is that the chosen map has the highest population variance between districts of any of the options, which the plaintiffs allege fails to comply with the state requirement that all districts be as equal in population as possible.

The map does fall within the 10% population variance allowed between districts by state statute, though the district with the lowest population only meets this margin by 0.61%.

Also included in the lawsuit is the allegation that the redistricting process did not provide sufficient opportunity for public input. There was a public hearing about redistricting held on April 5 , though the lawsuit argues that this was not enough.

The lawsuit brings up a special work session that was held to discuss redistricting on April 12, which was scheduled to last two hours but ended after 22 minutes.

At this meeting, there were members of the public in the audience and the lawsuit suggests that the floor should have been opened for comments.

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Another major allegation put forward by the lawsuit is that the adopted map engages in gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is a redistricting practice where legislators draw the boundaries for electoral districts to provide an unfair advantage for one political party over another. One common sign of a gerrymandered district is that they are often oddly shaped and not compact or contiguous.

The lawsuit’s argument points to comments made by some county commissioners who supported the map in part due to the fact that it kept some districts primarily rural and others primarily urban.

For those that supported the map, this separation was a positive attribute, and one that would help those with similar needs and interests have their voices heard.

Decided in a 3-2 decision, Beltrami County now has new legislative districts.

“I don’t want our rural folks to be drowned out by larger urban populations, nor do I want city residents to lose their voice,” said District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson during the board’s April 19 meeting.

These comments were echoed in a statement made by District 3 Commissioner Richard Anderson at that same meeting.

“(This map) allows people in Beltrami County with like concerns and similar needs to be in the same districts,” Anderson said. “This map allows three districts in Beltrami County to serve and preserve its rural setting. It has balance.”

Lucachick disagreed with this perspective and argued during the meeting that this line of reasoning amounted to gerrymandering.

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“I’m baffled. Where in the redistricting guidelines does it say to group like-minded folks into districts?” Lucachick said. “That’s exactly what we don’t want to do with gerrymandering.”

While not a statutory requirement, state redistricting principles in the past have included that “communities of interest should be preserved” including those with similar social and geographic interests, according to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website.

A court date has not yet been scheduled, but plaintiffs are requesting a hearing as soon as possible since the case could impact voting and elections.

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