Determining the districts
As early as 2005, it was becoming clear that, when the 2010 census was released, Wright County was going to face a daunting task when it came to re-districting the county’s five commissioner districts. With sustained growth along the I-94 corridor and lesser growth in the rest of the county, the disparity in the size of the commissioner districts was such that not only would it require redistricting, but it would require all five county commissioners to run for re-election in 2012.
Under the rules of determining commissioner districts, there can be no more than 10 percent difference between the largest district and the smallest. County Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala was assigned with the task of making the numbers work, but, as became quickly apparent, big changes were coming.
“It didn’t take long at all once we started the process to know that we were going to have a lot of changes and that there would be no way to redistrict the county without having significant population shifts that would require all of the commissioners to be up for re-election,” Hiivala said. “When we started trying to devise the different maps to present to the county board, we quickly figured out that they would all have to start with Otsego. There was just no way around it.”
For the previous two census periods, District 2 had remained identical – the Cities of Monticello, Otsego and an insignificant sliver of Dayton (just 13 people in the 2010 census) and Monticello Township. The growth of those two cities and one township had virtually mirrored the overall growth of the county, but that changed significantly over the first decade of the new century. Thanks to a partial annexation of the township, Monticello grew by 62 percent (from 7,868 to 12,759).
When combined as a single entity, Monticello city/township grew 33 percent (from 12,007 to 15,940), which was lower than the overall county growth rate of 39 percent in the decade (from 89,986 to 124,700).
Otsego, however, grew by 112 percent – growing from 6,389 in 2000 to 13,571 in 2010. That growth made it impossible to keep the current District 2 intact because of a geographical quirk that impacted Monticello and Monticello Township.
“There was no way we could keep that population group in District 2 together,” Hiivala said. “The City of Monticello is on the border of Wright County and the township completely surrounds it. Redistricting doesn’t allow you to create ‘islands’ – a city or township that isn’t contiguous to the rest of the district. All five districts have to be blocks of land that are entirely connected. Because of that, any district that has the City of Monticello had to have Monticello Township as well because the city is completely surrounded by the township. With that population of almost 16,000 and Otsego being at more than 13,500, it took the current District 2 beyond the limit you could have to meet the 10 percent standard variation is district size.”
Determining the final configuration of the commissioner districts wouldn’t be easy. Ten options were presented to the board, many of them quite similar with minor variations. However, one that drew the ire of Board Chair Rose Thelen of Clearwater was the option eventually selected – one that would include the Cities of Monticello, Clearwater and Maple Lake and the Townships of Monticello, Clearwater, Maple Lake and Silver Creek.
“I tried to make the argument that we should try to keep the lakes region of the county together and the response from both the public and the local government units were against that map,” Thelen said. “People in Clearwater didn’t want to get hooked into Monticello, people from Annandale didn’t want to get hooked into Buffalo and people in Rockford didn’t want to get hooked in with St. Michael. Given the situation with the commissioners in those districts, it created another problem.”
Not only were all five commissioners forced to run for re-election, but the map chosen put two sitting commissioners in the same district twice. Hiivala explained that under every scenario his office looked at, there was no way to make a redistricting map work without putting Commissioners Jack Russek and Dick Mattson in the same district. However, there were options that would have kept Thelen and Sawatzke separated, but, by a 4-1 vote, the county board approved the new redistricting map.
With Russek and Commissioner Elmer Eichelberg announcing their retirements earlier this year, there are three districts (1, 3 and 4) are guaranteed to have a new commissioner and Mattson facing seven challengers in the Aug. 14 primary to pare that list down to two for the Nov. 6 general election.
As it pertains to District 2, there is a significant shift in the demographic, as two commissioners come from the Monticello area and two more come from Clearwater. What makes their campaign more interesting is the historical indifference voters have toward primary elections. In the last presidential election year (2008), only 10 percent of registered voters came to the polls. To put that in perspective, District 2 has approximately 25,000 residents. Of those, about half are of voting age. 10 percent of that figure comes out at a mere 1,250 people that would vote in a typical primary – a figure that could greatly impact the business-as-usual on primary election day.
“We’re breaking some new ground here,” Wright County Elections Officer Gloria Gooler said. “We have all five commissioner districts up for election and four of them will have primaries because more than two candidates filed. We’re expected to order significantly more ballots than we usually do because we anticipate that, given so many candidates filed for county commissioner, the turnout is expected to be higher than what we’ve seen in the past, which is usually around 10 percent.”
The only thing that is certain about the 2012 elections is that the majority of county commissioners that meet in January will be new to the job. The only question that remains up to the voters is whether the number of new commissioners will be three, four or all five?