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Posted on Thu, Aug. 01, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Commissioner races are set
Primary will be Sept. 24; general election on Nov. 5

NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS COUNTY

St. Louis County commissioner primary elections will be delayed two weeks by lawsuits over the redistricting of its seven commissioner districts, but the general election will take place as scheduled Nov. 5.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer issued an order Wednesday adopting alternative election procedures after a court order declared the county's first redistricting plan unconstitutional. The County Board adopted a second plan after election filings opened.

The plan is doable, said Paul Tynjala, deputy county auditor in charge of elections.

"Maybe it isn't necessarily what we want, but we'll do it," he said.

Four-year commissioner positions will be open in the 2nd, 4th and 6th districts, seats held by Joanne Fay, Mike Forsman and Paul Plesha. The 1st and 5th districts, represented by Dennis Fink and Peg Sweeney, will have elections for two-year terms. All candidates will be required to file again for the offices they're seeking.

The plan ordered Wednesday will take advantage of the usually large turnouts for general elections. General elections in the county in nonpresidential election years usually average 70 percent to 80 percent turnout, Tynjala said. In special elections, the turnout usually is 30 percent to 50 percent of registered voters.

Kiffmeyer's order contains this schedule:

 Official notice of coming election filings must be published on or before Aug. 14.

 Candidate filings will be Aug. 28 to Sept. 3.

 Candidates can withdraw until 5 p.m. Sept. 4.

 Absentee ballots will be available Sept. 9.

 Primaries are scheduled Sept. 24 in districts where more than two commissioner candidates have filed.

 Election for commissioners, governor, U.S. senator and many other offices will be held as scheduled Nov. 5.

The plan also gives the auditor's office the legally required 14 to 20 days before the election to mail ballots to about 15 remote precincts where people vote by mail, Tynjala said.

The 2002 county commissioner election has been up in the air for weeks. In June, commissioners Fay and Fink, Colvin Township resident Jim Hofsommer and the Citizens Research Council challenged a redistricting plan passed May 28 by the County Board. On July 1, 6th Judicial District Judge Terry Hallenbeck declared that plan null and void because the population was not equal among districts.

County Auditor Gordon McFaul was not named in that suit. On the advice of County Attorney Alan Mitchell, McFaul concluded the order did not apply to him. His office supervises elections.

Furthermore, there was no plan to replace the voided one, so when filings opened July 2, the May 28 plan districts were used.

On July 9, the County Board passed a second redistricting plan with more equal population distribution.

On July 17, Hallenbeck issued a temporary injunction enjoining the auditor from holding an election under the May plan. He said the July plan could, however, be used for the election.

But by that time, the auditor's office couldn't meet several deadlines associated with the Sept. 10 primary elections.

Kiffmeyer's office presented two options, and the auditor's office presented one to Hallenbeck. The judge issued an order regarding a legal time frame late Tuesday that essentially eliminated one of Kiffmeyer's options.

After consultation Wednesday with the auditor's office, Kiffmeyer issued her order. While it compresses several steps in the process, it can be done, Tynjala said.

The auditor's plan was to hold the county commissioner primaries on general election day in November and the general election on Dec. 17. But Kiffmeyer said she wanted the commissioners elected at the same time as other officials.

"Aiming to Nov. 5, when you can, is in the best interest of the citizens of St. Louis County," she said. Iffy weather and a lack of other offices to vote for would likely have led to low voter turnout in a special December election, she said.

While at least two other counties, Wabasha and Winona, have had to reshape their original redistricting plans, St. Louis County is the only one in Minnesota that will have a special election as a result, Kiffmeyer said.

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