After a second vote, the Bemidji City Council adopts the new city neighborhood map 6-1 – Bemidji Pioneer


BEMIDJI – Although it passed in the late evening, the Bemidji City Council’s initial vote on an ordinance creating new parts of the city did not go as planned on Monday.

The council’s April 18 session included the ordinance’s third reading and its final vote, but instead of narrowly passing as expected, the measure failed 4-3. After an hour of heated discussion and comment, the vote was reconsidered and ultimately passed 6-1.

The first vote on the ordinance Monday night saw Mayor Jorge Prince, Ward 2 Councilor Josh Peterson and Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson vote against the new boundaries, consistent with their positions on the map in previous discussions.

However, Ward 1 Councilor Audrey Thayer joined in the opposition, citing concerns about how the redistricting process had gone and expressing a desire for more public input.

“I don’t think the process was handled the way we should be,” Thayer said, “we didn’t do our due diligence.”

The redistricting process began for city council in a session on March 7, which saw only one option for new ward boundaries presented by city staff. It was decided at this meeting to table the subject in order to allow for the development and review of more maps.

Criticisms emerged from some members of the public both about the lack of options presented and about the deadline imposed on the submission of the subject. Even with the initial timetable given to council members, Bemidji would not have been able to meet the March 29 deadline set by the state for municipal redistricting.

“I think we should be embarrassed, we had the information weeks before,” Thayer said. “We are far behind.”

Thayer’s decision to vote against the proposed map drew immediate criticism from other council members who expressed concerns that not passing the ordinance would only create new problems.

“It’s embarrassing,” At-Large Advisor Daniel Jourdain said in response to the first vote result. “It’s a shock for the city and for the voters.”

If the original vote had stood, the city would have had to start the redistricting and ordinance process all over again. This would have included the need for city staff to develop new maps and schedule another public hearing.

“There aren’t enough hours in a day for staff to do what you ask of them,” said Ward 4 councilor Emelie Rivera. “I’m really appalled that we’ve come to this.”

The decision to reject the ordinance would also have delayed the redistricting of Beltrami County, which requires information from Bemidji’s legislative districts for its own process.

“We’ve come to this point, we have a responsibility to move something forward,” Rivera said. “I am not comfortable leaving here tonight without some action that will move the county forward.”

Even council members who had opposed the ordinance expressed some shock at the outcome of the vote.

“We don’t have a redistricting plan and it wasn’t planned tonight,” Prince said immediately after the first vote.

Each of them maintained their position to oppose the order, at least initially.

“Councillor Rivera reminds me to think of the county, I think of the citizens,” Prince said. “We failed, not necessarily in this vote tonight, but much earlier in the process.”

However, opinions changed as the potential consequences of a failed redistricting vote became clear.

“This is a self-created emergency,” City Attorney Alan Felix said. “You’re putting the city in a terrible position, and that’s not legal advice.”

In addition to having to restart the redistricting of Bemidji and delaying the county process, had the decision to reject the proposal stood, it would also have created challenges for the upcoming election filing period.

The city’s new districts likely would not have been completed by the time the application period opened on May 17, meaning potential applicants might not even know which districts they would qualify for.

It would also have prevented the ballots from being printed since the information they contained would have been subject to change.

“You’re going to create chaos that’s beyond your control, the county’s control,” Felix told the council. “And who suffers? You won’t, your constituents will.

This led to a change of heart for some of the council members who had voted against the ordinance, with Prince moving to reconsider the vote.

“I sit here and fully recognize the chaos that (the decision) will create,” Prince said. “I can’t do this to our fellow citizens.”

Despite the shift in mentality, those who had opposed the proposed map made it clear that they were still not happy with how the redistricting process had gone.

“We ended up with this process that left a lot of us unsatisfied,” Prince said.

Some of those who supported the ordinance also agreed that there were issues with how the city had gone through the redistricting, but believed the best way to resolve those issues was to finalize a decision.

“As flawed as it was, we took the steps and made a decision,” Ward 5 Councilor Lynn Eaton said. “Admit the mistake, fix it, and move on.”

After the first vote was reconsidered and overturned, the ordinance had a second chance to pass. That vote for the proposed map passed 6-1, with all but Johnson’s support.

With the card now accepted, Johnson no longer lives in Ward 3 and resides within the boundaries of Ward 1. This means he can complete his current term, which is expected to last until 2024, but will no longer be able to run for the same county.

Even after it passed, it was clear that those who changed their vote to pass the ordinance, Prince, Peterson and Thayer, were still not entirely happy with the outcome.

Thayer and Prince said that although they supported the new map in the second vote, they did so in the best interests of their constituents, but their concerns about the process remained.

“I’m not leaving feeling good about my vote,” Thayer said. “What happened here is a travesty.”

Before discussing the redistricting, council also heard an annual report from Greater Bemidji, proposed a feasibility study for different potential uses for the Neilson Reise Arena and heard about street renewal projects planned for the next five years.

Another subject that was thoroughly discussed was the possibility of installing solar panels on the tourist information center.

The full recording of the council meeting can be viewed on the city’s website www.ci.bemidji.mn.us.

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