Minneapolis City Council to redraw ward boundaries

Tom Ford

The shape of Minneapolis politics for the next decade, and possibly the fate of current City Council members, will be decided during the next few weeks by a small group of temporary city officials.

A redistricting commission – primarily composed of local appointed representatives of the Republican, Democratic, Green and Independence parties – will set the 13 new ward boundaries for the next City Council elections, scheduled for 2005.

Based on 2000 U.S. Census figures, the redistricting process attempts to account for population changes by creating wards with equal numbers of people, ensuring one citizen’s vote has the same influence as another’s.

The routinely complex and controversial process often results in neighborhoods split between two or more wards and affect minority candidates’ success.

The result also will likely move some City Council members out of the wards that voted for them, putting some incumbents in the same districts and leaving other districts without elected representatives.

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, has pushed for cities across the state to hold municipal elections under the new boundaries by next year and said doing so provides citizens equal political representation.

But some Minneapolis council members said earlier elections would cost too much and jeopardize important city issues.

All current City Council
members were elected in 2001. While the new ward boundaries take effect this year, city law dictates those members would serve four-year terms and wouldn’t have to run for office again until 2005.

Kahn said such a law conflicts with her basic belief in the “one-person, one-vote” constitutional mandate.

She said wards near downtown Minneapolis – whose populations have increased over the last decade – will be less represented in City Hall for the next four years than northern and southern wards.

Kahn’s bill did not garner support in the Senate, rendering it dead this session.

While failing at the state level, Kahn said someone challenging existing city charter rules through a lawsuit could force early elections.

“I’m pretty convinced that’ll happen,” Kahn said.

But City Council member Gary Schiff said he opposed reducing current council terms.

“I think it’s appropriate to serve out our terms and continue serving the constituents who elected us,” Schiff said.

Elections are expensive to taxpayers, he said, and drain the time of City Council members.

“Agendas for affordable housing would come to a screeching halt,” Schiff said. “We’d be spending every evening door-knocking.”

With a total population of 382,618, the city’s average district size will be 29,432. The city charter allows the commission to create wards with 1,472 people more or less than the average.

Redistricting Commissioner Lyall Schwarzkopf said he wants ward populations to be as equal as possible.

“I’d like to have districts truly represent people,” Schwarzkopf said.

A deviation higher than approximately 1 percent from the ward average conflicts with the purpose of redistricting, he said.

But other commissioners have downplayed low deviations in favor of other considerations.

Commissioner Todd Ferrara said the number of actual voters varies from one ward to another and a relatively high deviation is acceptable.

Ferrara said keeping deviations small limits the commission’s ability to keep neighborhoods intact, which is one of his primary concerns.

Splitting neighborhoods between wards, he said, results in multiple City Council members representing those communities.

He said this causes problems for neighborhood residents who might be unfamiliar with a particular council member or confused about which member they should consult on a particular issue.

Several commissioners and community activists have advocated forming wards with high minority populations, from which minority candidates are believed to have better electoral success.

Cheryl Morgan Spencer, a Minneapolis Urban League spokeswoman, said the group wants a minimum of four such “opportunity wards” – widely defined as districts with an approximate 50 percent minority population – established.

Commissioners will begin Monday comparing and considering maps they drafted. By mid-April the commission will finalize new ward lines, which will be in effect until 2012.

Tom Ford welcomes comments at [email protected]