House proposes moving city elections to 2003

Tom Ford

The redrawing of Minneapolis voting districts might force City Council members to break out their campaign signs sooner than expected.

Under a House bill approved last week, current City Council members would have to run for office next year – rather than in 2005 – in response to Minneapolis ward changes to be determined by a city redistricting commission.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn,
DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored the legislation, said earlier elections would enable the City Council to reflect population shifts more quickly.

“(It) makes a mockery of the idea of one person, one vote if new wards are not applied until six years after the census,” Kahn said.

In response to 2000 U.S. Census figures, several cities across the state are reforming voting districts to include equal numbers of people – a decennial process that provides citizens with equal power at the polls.

Kahn said Minneapolis’ situation is particularly troubling, since there were severe disparities in populations between current wards.

In Minneapolis, there is currently a more than 6,500-person difference between the city’s most- and least-populated wards.

The larger districts – which have higher minority populations – are not represented proportionally by the current lines, Kahn said.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said Kahn’s provision would likely fail. He said it was tacked onto a bill dealing with a water tower contract in the city of Walker, and several senators expressed opposition since it is unrelated to that bill.

But Kahn said pushing the
election year forward could occur without the Legislature’s help.

She said a couple of citizens plan on filing a lawsuit to force an early election, which she is confident will succeed.

“It’s an absolute slam-dunk
voting rights case,” Kahn said.

She said maintaining the current election schedule would contradict a constitutional mandate.

City Council members are split on the issue. While some argue the early elections are justifiable, others said they would be costly and time consuming.

Minneapolis City Council President Paul Ostrow said he is prepared to run again but said
shortening current City Council members’ terms raises several
complications.

“This is kind of a mixed bag,” Ostrow said.

Holding elections in 2003 would force mayoral and City Council candidates to run in separate years, which is currently not allowed under the Minneapolis charter, Ostrow said.

In recent years, he said, voters have rejected charter amendments to stagger election years. This is largely because they think placing mayoral and City Council candidates on the same ballot brings more citizens to the polls, Ostrow said.

The city charter also calls for four-year council terms, which Ostrow said strikes a proper balance between keeping City Council members accountable and allowing issues to be resolved without voter pressure.

“Overall, it would not be wise to go back to two-year terms,” he said.

In addition, Ostrow said, election costs would be high, which could be hard to shoulder in light of continuing city budget woes.

Susanne Griffin, Minneapolis elections director, estimates an election next year would cost at least $400,000, an expense the city would have to bear. The figure is based on costs from previous election years.

Ward 2 City Council member Paul Zerby said sustaining four-year terms could be a detriment to constituents.

Zerby said trying to represent both new and old districts would be difficult. Members might not focus as heavily on areas moved outside their wards, and people living in those places could lose a voice in City Hall, he said.

But Zerby said current members – particularly those first elected last year – are still settling into their offices.

Having to campaign again so quickly would place another burden on City Council members’ time and efforts, he said.

City Council member Joe Biernat said he isn’t convinced earlier elections would cause many problems.

He said debate on the topic should dwell on representing people instead of concerns over election costs protecting incumbents.

“I just think we need to do what’s fair,” Biernat said. “It seems to me if the lines change as significantly as the (redistricting) commission calls for, it’s logical to have a public discussion on holding earlier elections.”

Tom Ford covers City Hall and welcomes comments at [email protected]