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In Grand Forks, political map-making tees up possible City Hall clash

In 2010, the average ward was expected to hold about 7,500 people. Now, because of big growth in the south end, the average ward has to hold about 8,500. That alone would shift the city’s political landscape — but couple it with big drops in measured population north of DeMers Avenue, and it means enormous changes could be on the way, shifting Grand Forks’ political center of gravity southward.

Grand Forks City Hall
Grand Forks City Hall, 255 N. 4th St. Sam Easter / Grand Forks Herald

City Council President Dana Sande got right to the point on Monday night: as the city redraws its political maps, he won’t vote to back a new map that throws a sitting council member out of their ward.

“I believe that all council members who raised their hand to serve our community should not be displaced based upon the changing demographics of the community,” Sande said. “… Knowing how few people are willing to serve, I don’t think we should draw different lines to take people that have already (volunteered to run) and make it so that they can’t serve their constituents.”

Sande’s objections came as city leaders got their first look at three draft options of a new political map, all of which would shift the city’s ward and precinct borders to account for big changes measured in the 2020 Census. That map-making process is expected to play out over the next several weeks, with a preliminary vote on a map set for Monday, Nov. 8, and a final vote expected as soon as Nov. 22.

And in the meantime, Sande’s comments illuminate a debate at the heart of the process. How should the city build its political districts? City staff, as they built several options to pitch to city leaders, tried to keep wards roughly equal in size and avoid carving up local neighborhoods. Should it consider the political future of its current leaders, too?

“If (one map option) were to turn out to be the best for the city, and that means that I’m moved out of my district, I don’t think that this project should be determined by an individual’s address,” City Council member Bret Weber said on Monday evening.

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“We’ve heard for years such-and-such a ward was only there because such-and-such a council member drew the line that way,” Mayor Brandon Bochenski said. “I don’t want to hear that for the next 10 years.”

In 2010, the average ward was expected to hold about 7,500 people. Now, because of big growth in the south end, the average ward has to hold about 8,500. That alone would shift the city’s political landscape — but couple it with big drops in measured population north of DeMers Avenue, and it means enormous changes could be on the way, shifting Grand Forks’ political center of gravity southward.

The city has already seen that play out in its legislative districts, each of which elect two state representatives and one state senator to Bismarck. Those maps were redrawn in recent months, with draft maps expected to be ratified as soon as Monday. And those new maps significantly change the political landscape, shrinking the size of ever-denser urban districts and stretching rural districts so far that one near Grand Forks has disappeared altogether.

RELATED: Grand Forks region likely to lose a legislative district, drawing concern about rural representation

And besides the political question of City Council members’ futures, there’s much more at stake in the redistricting process. Multiple members point out that city politics is sometimes hyperlocal, with small issues generating intense neighborhood interest. It’s a reason to think carefully about how to draw neighborhood lines.

City Council member Katie Dachtler points out a citizens’ group in her ward that would have its territory divvied into two council districts under at least one draft map option. And City Council member Kein Vein, who has served the city as a leader and a City Hall staffer for decades, recalled the 1980s case of a school crossing that generated intense local debate and encouraged a local resident to run for office.

“There are always some types of ward issues that are a lightning rod for people becoming City Council members,” he said.

There is a long list of other considerations, too. When city leaders draw districts to keep local neighborhoods intact, is that more or less important than keeping all the city wards at a roughly equal population? City staff’s draft maps keep population totals within 3% of the ideal average. Is that enough?

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Multiple council members have also pointed out that the city will continue to grow over the next 10 years. The south end, most notably, has seen explosive growth over the last 10 years. Should the city try to anticipate that? How?

The redistricting process is unfolding quickly, following on the work of state map-drafters — whose borders are crucial for setting city precinct boundaries — that was held up by the pandemic’s effect of the census. But Dachtler lamented that city leaders didn’t get more time to plan and ponder the future of their own political map, especially given that council member Jeannie Mock is currently at home caring for a new baby.

“I absolutely want her to be able to enjoy and benefit from that time with her baby … but we could have planned for this, knowing that she was due to have a baby and gotten some more input,” Dachtler said.

Mock said she’s eyed the process carefully, marveling at the responsibility of laying down the next decade’s worth of political lines.

“It’s our decision for the next 10 years,” Mock said.

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