Bill would require 2003 City Council elections

Claiming current wards violate ‘one-person, one-vote,’ a Minneapolis legislator tries to force councilmembers to run this year instead of in 2005

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn has again introduced legislation to force the Minneapolis City Council to move up their 2005 election to this November — to bring new ward boundaries into effect sooner and, she said, uphold the one-person, one-vote principle.

The Minneapolis City Council voted 12-0 Jan. 17 to oppose Kahn’s House File 67, saying it undermined local control. Although the council has a DFL majority, some Green Party members see it as part of an ongoing partisan attack because they won two seats in 2001. Kahn is a Minneapolis DFLer.

Minneapolis residents elected the current council in 2001 to four-year terms. Council members ran in the old wards, based on 1990 census data, because 2000 census data couldn’t legally be used. That means the first council election to use 2000 data won’t occur until late 2005 — with councilmembers serving in 1990-era wards until Inauguration Day, January 2006.

According to Kahn’s data, her councilmember, Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), now represents 33,438 residents compared to Councilmember Scott Benson who represents 26,468 11th Ward residents. That means Zerby has nearly 7,000 more constituents than Benson, or 26 percent more.

Fairness would dictate that all wards have roughly the same number of people, Kahn said. "It is just a piece of good government," she said.

Kahn is particularly concerned about racial discrimination. High-population wards, such as the 6th (which covers Phillips and parts of Whittier) also have a relatively high percentage of minority residents. In comparison, the wards with fewest residents are mostly white.

"It is perfect for a federal court case," Kahn said. "The underrepresented wards are the minority wards."

Critics say the bill changes the election rules after the fact. They say citizens elected their councilmembers to four-year terms and that should stand.

"If there isn’t anything that is more fundamental to local control, it should be what the voters decided in their charter — and that’s four-year terms," said Benson, a DFLer whose ward includes Windom, Tangletown and part of Kingfield.

Cam Gordon, Green Party state chair, said he thinks Kahn has a legitimate concern about unequal representation. But he disagrees with the remedy.

"This didn’t really come up during the campaign. It was pretty clear these would be four-year terms," said Gordon, who narrowly lost to Zerby in the 2nd Ward race. "After the results come in, it doesn’t seem like the appropriate time to reach back and tinker with things."

Benson said a 2003 election would come with a cost. City elections staff estimate it between $250,000 and $400,000, depending on the number of primaries.

Kahn calls it a "small price for democracy," adding it would be cheaper than a lawsuit.

Can it pass?M Kahn had a similar bill last year that passed the House of Representatives and died in the Senate, she said.

It could face a similar fate this time around.

House File 67 awaits action in the House Government Operations Committee.

Benson said from a practical standpoint Kahn’s bill would only affect the

Minneapolis City Council. She didn’t even require the Minneapolis Park and

Recreation Board — which also had 2001 elections — to run again, he said.

Kahn said the bill only affected Minneapolis this cycle, but it would affect election cycles in Duluth and St. Paul after the next census.

The bill did not include the Park Board because it "is not very important," Kahn said. "The City Council is the thing that has serious taxing power, police power and so forth."

Even if the bill had included the Park Board, commissioners would not have to run in 2003, she said. None of the six Park Board districts changed enough in population to trigger an election under Kahn’s bill.

Rep. Jim Rhodes, R-St. Louis Park, chair of the House Government Operations Committee, said he expected his legislative body to pass the bill again.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who sits on the Senate State and Governmental Operations Committee, said he would oppose it and thought the rest of the city’s Senate delegation would, too.

"I don’t think Minneapolis legislators should be opening up opportunities for the rest of the legislature to beat up on Minneapolis," said Dibble.

He agreed with those who said the results of the 2001 election should stand — with councilmembers serving four-year terms.

"We have seen so much in the last few years with elections being trifled with — and some lack of confidence in our elections," he said.

Green and mad The Green Party has already mounted a legal challenge to the new City Council ward boundaries, claiming they concentrate poor, minority residents in the 5th Ward, represented by Green Party member Natalie Johnson Lee.

The new boundaries put the other Green Party City Councilmember, Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward), into the new 9th Ward, where he would have to run against incumbent DFLer Gary Schiff.

Kahn’s bill only adds fuels to the fire.

"First, they take the Green Party-elected councilmember on the south side and district him out of his ward and give his ward to somebody else — then call for early elections," Zimmermann said. "What does that look like to you?"

"In the bigger scheme of things, this has a clean, responsive government brush to it — at first glance," he said.

Zimmermann and others said if Kahn were serious about fixing the problem, she would have introduced this bill well before Minneapolis held its elections. Further, the City Council could have had new ward boundaries in place prior to its 2001 election — but the legislature prevented it, he said. The city could not draw its new boundaries until the legislature had drawn its boundaries first.

"There was plenty of time for us to do it," Zimmermann said. "The census numbers were in."

Kahn said she was not on the election-oversight committee until 2000 and didn’t start looking at the issues until then. The City Council should have seen the problem coming and fixed it itself, she said.

She called "a separate issue" the state law requiring cities to redraw their ward boundaries after legislative boundaries are done. "I don’t know why that was done," she said.

Kahn said Zimmermann’s charge that her bill is anti-Green is "really weird."

She worked hardest on Zerby’s

campaign, she said. Zerby beat Gordon 2 percentage points — and the new ward boundaries would favor Gordon in the next election. They shift more 2nd Ward voters into Gordon’s Seward neighborhood.

"I am amazed that Dean Zimmerman — who was the only person who came and testified against it [the bill] last year — feels even comfortable coming out and saying the advance of the Green Party is more important than one-person, one-vote," Kahn said.