New beginnings for Bemidji: City Council takes action following swearing in ceremony

Following an oath of office ceremony, the Bemidji City Council took action on a law enforcement proposal and financial support for the community's economic development organization.

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From left: Councilor Nancy Erickson, Mayor Jorge Prince, Councilor Audrey Thayer and Councilor Ron Johnson are sworn in by City Clerk Michelle Miller during Monday’s meeting of the Bemidji City Council. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- The post-election transition period mostly concluded for the city of Bemidji Monday, with the gavel of leadership being passed.

During its first meeting of 2021, four elected officials were sworn in, two of them new and another two returning . New Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince, having defeated former council member Michael Meehlhause in the November general election, was one of those taking the oath, prior to being handed the gavel by his predecessor Rita Albrecht.

A BSU graduate in accounting, Prince works as the chief financial officer at LaValley Industries. Before his current position, Prince was the executive director at BSU's Small Business Development Center.

On his mayoral Facebook page, Prince said prior to the meeting that it's his hope to avoid divisions in the months ahead.

"If we want Bemidji to be different than the rest of our state or nation, then we are going to have to learn how to work together as a team," Prince said. "How to show each other mercy and grace. . . How to face our mutual challenges and difference with courage and respect. That is my greatest hope for Bemidji. That we see each other as people, as neighbors, and maybe even as friends. That together we can build the community that we all want to live in and leave as a heritage to our children."


Bemidji’s new mayor Jorge Prince is passed the gavel from outgoing mayor Rita Albrecht during Monday’s Bemidji City Council meeting. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

In 2020, Albrecht opted not to seek a fifth term, and instead made an unsuccessful run for the Minnesota Senate. On Monday, she completed her time as mayor, a position she held since the start of 2013.

Another newcomer sworn in was Audrey Thayer for Ward 1. Thayer, who defeated Joe Gould in the election, is the first Native American woman to hold a Bemidji council seat.

As a way to honor that achievement, a smudging ceremony took place earlier Monday. In a post made on Facebook , Thayer noted the significance and said "action is important. Diversity and culture change is important."

In addition to the ceremony, a prayer was also conducted prior to the meeting getting under way by Charles Grolla. A member of the Bois Forte Band, Grolla is a cultural teacher at Cass Lake-Bena Schools and friend of Thayer's.

Charles Grolla prays before Audrey Thayer, the Bemidji City Council’s first Native American woman to be seated, is sworn in during Monday’s meeting. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)


Thayer also addressed the prayer ceremony in her social media post, stating the prayers were for people to "see that the old normal is moving on," and that they are "hoping for change together in the city."

The others taking the oath of office Monday were Wards 3 and 5 council members Ron Johnson and Nancy Erickson. This is the start of a sixth term for Johnson and a fifth for Erickson.

The oath taken by all four officials, was given by City Clerk Michelle Miller. In taking the oath, council members affirm their support of both the United States and Minnesota constitutions in addition to stating their dedication to the offices they were elected to.

After the oaths were taken, the council still had a vacant seat, which won't be filled until a special election concludes in February. The race will be between Daniel Jourdain and Dave Larson .

From left: Councilor Nancy Erickson, Mayor Jorge Prince, Councilor Audrey Thayer and Councilor Ron Johnson are sworn in by City Clerk Michelle Miller during Monday’s meeting of the Bemidji City Council. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)


Council business

One of the first acts taken by the council on Monday was approving a proposal from the Bemidji Police Department to place signs around the city informing residents of its ordinance prohibiting keys left in unattended vehicles. According to city staff, the cost will be covered by grant funding.

The effort is part of a continued public awareness campaign by law enforcement, as there remains tourists and residents alike who are unaware. The ordinance was created to prevent vehicle theft, as Bemidji has a high rate of the crime compared to other cities.

Another approval was made Monday in a 4-2 vote, as the council authorized providing $30,000 toward Greater Bemidji Economic Development. The organization supports local businesses and recruits companies to the area.

Last month, Greater Bemidji officials gave a presentation on their actions over the past year and some of their plans for 2021 . However, some council members felt another presentation at a future work session would be beneficial before voting to approve the funding.

Erickson, though, who has in the past opposed giving city dollars toward outside entities, felt it was right to support the move this time around.

"This $30,000 has already been worked into the (2021) budget," Erickson said. "It's historically been something I've never supported, but it may be a little unfair to be placing this out there for brand new council members to make a decision before they understand the depth of it."

Voting in favor of the measure were Erickson, Johnson and Prince, as well as Ward 2 council member Josh Peterson. Ward 4 councilor Emelie Rivera and Ward 1 councilor Thayer, meanwhile, voted against.

Another vote Monday ended in a 3-3 tie, which closed the door on a proposed ordinance. The new rule would have prohibited wells for irrigation purposes and other domestic uses on properties within the city which are served by Bemidji's water system.


In the vote, Johnson, Peterson and Prince were against, while Erickson, Rivera and Thayer were for.

"For me personally, I am hesitant to add additional restrictions on property owners unless there was a significant public health or public safety issue," Prince said.

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