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Posted on Sun, Jun. 09, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Lines drawn over redistricting

NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

Redistricting is not exactly a barn burner issue among voters, yet it goes to the heart of our democratic form of government. A few people feel strongly enough to take action when they think it's not done properly.

Last week, a plan setting new boundaries that was adopted May 28 by the St. Louis County Board was challenged by three lawsuits filed in 6th Judicial District Court.

County commissioners said they wanted to keep historical boundaries intact as much as possible, but those who oppose the decision say the populations of those districts vary too much. John Lukan, one of the court petitioners, calls it "gerrymandering."

At issue is the basic one-person, one-vote principle.

Two residents who were once county commissioner candidates, Jim Hofsommer of Colvin Township and Lukan of Gnesen Township, representing the watchdog Citizens Research Council, filed suits against the County Board. District 2 Commissioner Joanne Fay also sued the County Board.

After the census is taken every 10 years, state and local governments redraw their elective districts to keep representation as equal as possible. In St. Louis County it's a difficult job because population is concentrated in the Duluth area and other areas are sparsely populated.

This time, townships bordering Duluth were St. Louis County's growth areas. Most of them are in District 5 where Peg Sweeney is the commissioner.

Commissioner district boundaries can make a big difference to townships, which rely more heavily than cities on some county services, such as law enforcement. When boundaries change, officials who have traditionally worked with one commissioner -- and other communities in their area -- might be forced to deal with a different commissioner and ally with other townships.

Several commissioners made it clear at the May 28 meeting that keeping communities with similar concerns together was a high priority. Sixth District Commissioner Paul Plesha, for example, wanted Biwabik, Biwabik Township and McKinley kept in his district.

Furthermore, some constituents who want to talk with their commissioner think they're likely to be inconvenienced by district boundary changes.

Charlene Raihala of Colvin Township on the Iron Range is unhappy that her township is being moved out of Plesha's district, into District 4, whose commissioner, Mike Forsman, is in Ely. Plesha's office is in Virginia; Ely is a far longer drive. Raihala shops in Virginia or Duluth, 40 miles south of her home, and could stop to do her county business either place, she said.

"We never go to Ely for anything," Raihala said. "I'd rather go to Duluth than to Ely."

But what concerns Fay, Hofsommer and Lukan is how much voice each resident will have. If, as in the plan adopted by the board, one district has substantially more people than others, any one vote will be less influential of the outcome than the vote of a person in a smaller district.

The U.S. Supreme Court allows only small disparities in district sizes, setting the threshold at 10 percent deviation among legislative districts. The court has not ruled on county redistricting.

But state law, according to Assistant County Attorney Shaun Floerke, could allow one district to exceed that average by slightly less than 10 percent and fall short of that average by a little less than 10 percent. In other words, it could result in a 20 percent deviation.

Floerke, in an April 26 memo, recommended keeping the new districts as equal as possible, allowing less than 10 percent deviation.

The new District 5 is 9.73 percent larger than the ideal district average while District 4 is 8.45 percent smaller. It is that large difference that concerns the court petitioners. Other districts vary from 4 percent higher to 5 percent lower than that average.

Fay noted last week that 10 years from now, the growth townships outside Duluth will be even larger and that District 5 will be far larger that it is now.

The new plan gives District 5, Sweeney's district, about 31,433 residents (and about 600 more if tallying federal prisoners who were accidentally labeled as Duluth residents in the original census numbers). District 4, the smallest district, has about 26,200 people, more than 5,000 short of District 5. The ideal district average is about 28,600.

According to the Secretary of State's office, if a district's size varies more than 5 percent from the average, commissioners must face the voters in the first general election after the redistricting. The new plan will not force an election in Sweeney's district.

Minnesota counties are seeing more debate over redistricting plans this year than in the past, said James Mulder, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties. One of the reasons, he said, is the use of computers to redraw maps has made it much easier to come up with alternatives. Even after the 1990 census the maps were drawn by hand, he said.

"Now you can do it in minutes," he said. "Before, it was very difficult to identify an option that would have worked."

In Stearns County, which includes St. Cloud, commissioners disagreed about the drawing of boundaries, but no lawsuit resulted, County Administrator George Rindelaub said.

Last week's suits could mean St. Louis County will pave the way for future county redistricting statewide. A few challenges to county reapportionment came in the 1940s, but other than that, there's little precedent, Floerke said.

What happens next ultimately will be decided by Judge Terry Hallenbeck. He has four alternatives:

 Leave the districts the way commissioners approved them.

 Redraw the boundaries.

 Send the matter back to the County Board to revise.

 Appoint a commission to draw the districts.

The county attorney's office, which will represent the County Board in court, is trying to decide how to respond, Floerke said.

JANE BRISSETT covers St. Louis County and nonprofits. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 720-4161, (800) 456-8282 or bye-mail at jbrissett@duluthnews.com