By John Holler
It’s been said that there is strength in numbers. Citizens can help impose change by letting their feelings be known to elected officials. However at the May 1 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners showed that even an overwhelming public input campaign wouldn’t sway the board’s decision on redistricting and prompting Board Chair Rose Thelen to call the process “a mockery of democracy.”
Given the population disparity in the county, it was clear as early as 2005 that the redistricting approved in 2002 was already significantly growing disparate and would never meet the threshold needed to not require all five commissioner seats to be subject to re-election in 2012. That day finally came May 1, as, by a 3-2 vote, the board approved one of three finalist maps, despite overwhelming public support for one of the three options.
Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala opened the discussion by saying that three maps that had been posted on the county’s website - Maps 1, 5 and 8 of the 10 maps the board initially reviewed - were the three finalists to be considered.
“We felt there were three basic maps that met the criteria set forth by statute,” Hiivala said. “There are 10 different options which are slight variations off the three primary map outlines.”
Before the public hearing, written comment was read into the record. Of the 27 letters received, 24 of them requested the board approve Options 7-10 (which was narrowed down to Map 8 at the board meeting), including letters from the Clearwater Township Board of Supervisors, a member of the Annandale City Council, the city administrator of Clearwater, a Southside Township supervisor, the clerk of Middleville Township, the mayor of Annandale, a member of the Clearwater City Council and the Fish Lake Property Owners Association. Of the other three letters, two recommended options 5 or 6 and one requested options 3 or 8.
The disparity continued when the public hearing began. Of the nine residents who spoke to the issue, seven asked that the board approve Map 8, one requested Map 5 and one requested either Map 3 or 8. It was only after the public hearing closed that the discussion got heated.
Thelen closed the public hearing and reconvened the board meeting, opening it to discussion. Almost immediately, Commissioner Elmer Eichelberg made a motion to approve Map 5, which was seconded by Commissioner Dick Mattson.
“I was shocked how quickly the motion came out,” Thelen said. “We didn’t even discuss it at that point. Given the overwhelming sentiment from the public - it ran at about 90 percent - it stunned me that a motion was made so quickly without even discussing the merits of the different options.”
The motion wouldn’t be voted on for more than 20 minutes after the motion and second were made. Thelen attempted to plead the case for Map 8, which she said would swallow up smaller communities and the lakes area of the county into districts with large cities with a significant population base. She said cities like Clearwater and Annandale would be swallowed up in districts with cities like Monticello and Buffalo, respectively. At least one high ranking county official said he was troubled with Map 5 because it meanders east to west across the county and doesn’t conform to the standard cube style of commissioner districts in the past and ones that were included in Maps 1 and 8.
Eichelberg defended his decision to support Map 5, which would leave two commissioner districts without a sitting commissioner and would put Thelen and Commissioner Pat Sawatzke into the same district - one of Thelen’s arguments against Map 5.“With the federal government and cities drawing line, it puts us in a predicament,” Eichelberg said. “Unfortunately, the districts can’t be drawn up to please everyone. I believe Map 5 is the best option. We’re elected to make some tough decisions.”
Mattson defended his support of Map 5 saying that the communities along the Hwy. 12 corridor would remain together, but would be split if Map 8 was approved. Commissioner Jack Russek cited the county’s land use plan as being his rationale for favoring Map 5. Once Russek made his opinion known, it was clear that Map 5 had the votes needed to win board approval.
Sawatzke was asked to give his opinion on the maps and he said there were merits and trouble spots to all of the map candidates and he knew there would be a problem.
“When these (census) numbers came out, about a month ago I sat at home and was to come up with about 10 maps on my own,” Sawatzke said. “I knew that it wasn’t going to be pretty. This is what we’ve come to today.”
The problem in the process was the size of certain voting districts in the county. All map scenarios had to start in and around Otsego. Commissioner districts were targeted to be as close to 24,920 resident per district as possible. Otsego had 13,625 residents and, as part of the current District 1, could not be paired with longtime district partner Monticello. The city is completely surrounded on all Wright County sides by Monticello Township, which meant both had to be in the same district - along with its 15,940 residents.
Thelen attempted to persuade at least one of the other commissioners to change his vote, because Map 5 would put her and Sawatzke in the same commissioner district and have two, if not three open seats in the November election.
In the end, she called the question and the motion to adopt Map 5 passed by a 3-2 vote, with Thelen and Sawatzke voting against it. During the meeting, Sawatzke was never asked which Map he preferred, but after the meeting, he said he wouldn’t have supported either Map 5 or Map 8.
“I was looking at Options 2 and 4, but nobody seemed too interested in them,” Sawatzke said. “They were the two that put all five districts in as close a population as any of the 10 options. That was my rationale. I thought there were positives and negatives to all of them, but Options 2 and 4 took the subjective criteria out it. That’s why I thought they were the best option.”
As a result of the decision, the commissioner district lines were redrawn. Two districts (1 and 3) do not have a sitting commissioner. Eichelberg announced he won’t seek re-election, which will also open up District 4 to a new commissioner. Two districts now have two sitting commissioners in them - District 2 has Thelen and Sawatzke and District 5 has Russek and Mattson both living within its new borders. Russek announced last month that he wouldn’t seek re-election.
Thelen said following the meeting that she heard some residents discussing the potential of challenging the board vote, citing the extent of public support for a map that was rejected. She said she wouldn’t be involved in any such process, but said she would support the spirit of the challenge.
“I knew it was going to be an uphill fight to try to get Map 8 approved,” Thelen said. “I thought the evidence was overwhelming that their communities, which have numerous common interests, had legitimate concerns about going with the option the board selected. It puts all of those communities at a distinct disadvantage for representation. I thought it was a mockery of democracy.”