New Brighton city elections canceled

Council member Bauman comes out on top in lawsuit against city 

Residents of New Brighton will have fewer votes to cast this fall, as this year’s municipal elections, which would have been the city’s first even-year elections, have been canceled. 

On Aug. 25 a Ramsey County District Court judge ruled that the council’s decision in November 2015 to switch New Brighton’s city elections from an odd- to even-year schedule — effectively altering the terms of two council members and then-mayor-elect Val Johnson — was untimely and not consistent with state law.

This turn of events came by way of council member Gina Bauman, who persistently opposed the council’s decision and who started a petition demanding to move the decision to a ballot vote — letting the residents vote on when to vote. 

In May the city council and city staff denied Bauman’s petition for a referendum — which according to Bauman, had the signatures of about 10 percent of the city’s residents — on the basis that it did not follow the law. 

 

One thing leads to another

Following the dismissal of the petition, the council censured Bauman on April 26, stripping her of her city liaison appointments, because she sought advise from New Brighton City Attorney Troy Gilchrist. From the council’s perspective, Bauman went against protocol when she contacted Gilchrist about her legal options regarding the petition she was circulating.

City Manager Dean Lotter and the council explained that a council member can not enjoy the convenience of seeking “personal advice” from the city attorney without following the proper procedures. 

According to Lotter, Gilchrist agreed in hindsight and voluntarily resigned from his position soon after the incident. 

In what she called a “last resort,” Bauman teamed up with New Brighton resident Susan Erickson and went to court in August. According to a statement the two released, they said they received advice to move forward with a lawsuit from the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. They then hired attorney Daniel Reiff of Reiff Law Firm. 

 

Ordinance stricken

Last November, when the council voted to change the city’s election schedule, Bauman and council member Brian Strub’s terms were shortened by one year, while Johnson’s term was extended a year “to aid in the transition of moving from odd to even years,” the city said. Johnson had not yet taken office and had no voice in the decision. 

It was Strub who initially drove the switch from odd- to even-year elections with passage of Ordinance 839, and Strub who made the motions to shorten his own term — along with Bauman’s — rather than lengthen them, while lengthening Johnson’s term.

In an interview with the Bulletin last year, Strub said he thought it would be unfair to lengthen his own term and shorten the term of a mayor who was not yet in office. 

Bauman and Strub, both elected in 2013, had terms that would have ended in 2017, but due to the election schedule change, their term expirations changed to this November. Though both filed for re-election, neither will need to organize a campaign as their term expirations have been moved back to 2017 after Ramsey County District Court Judge Lezlie Ott Marek ordered Ordinance 839 stricken. Bauman and Stub’s opponents on the general election ballot would have been Emily Dunsworth and Verne McPherson.

Johnson’s mayoral term has been turned back into a two-year term.

Marek characterized the city’s denial of Bauman’s petition as off-kilter and ruled the petition was in line with the law. 

 

Why even, not odd? 

According to City Clerk Terri Haarstad, the city would save an estimated $13,380 every other year by not holding odd-year elections.

Strub had pointed out that the majority of Minnesota cities hold even-year elections. He said the change wasn’t only about being uniform or saving money though.

To Strub and other council members, the more significant reason for changing the voting schedule was because they said it would directly increase the number of residents voting in municipal elections.

According to a memo prepared by Haarstad last year, the city only gets a 22 percent turnout of registered voters for municipal elections on average, while it gets a 74 percent turnout for even-year, non-municipal elections.

The numbers show that an average of 3,040 registered voters cast ballots in the city’s odd-year elections each year for the past 12 years, while 11,271 New Brighton residents voted in the even-year elections.

Armed with that information, council members, excluding Bauman, said they hoped a switch would lead to greater voter participation in city elections. 

 

Bauman’s perspective 

On a number of occasions, Bauman spoke against the change, saying she was convinced the choice should be up to the residents. 

She had asserted that even-year elections might actually lessen the quality of votes that city candidates receive, because many voters who do show up on even years are only there for the county, state and federal elections and may not be “informed” enough for municipal elections, she had said.

“Not necessarily do bodies mean votes for the elections,” Bauman said at the council’s Nov. 10 meeting. “People still have to be informed on who to vote for. I believe that the people that come out on the off-year elections find out about the people they are going to vote for.”

Bauman reasserted multiple times that the council should skip the step of fully adopting the change and instead find out what residents want, adding the question to the Nov. 8 ballot.

Haarstad told the council that Minnesota state statutes do not allow councils to put the question of whether to conduct off-year or even-year elections directly on the ballot.

“The city council does not have the legislative authority to do so,” Haarstad said.

Marek and Johnson confirmed that the decision will not be up to the residents, but up to the council — only next time in a more timely manor, not directly after city elections.   

On Sept. 1 Johnson told the Bulletin that the council is exploring its options. 

“We’re disappointed in the ruling and we don’t necessarily agree with it,” Johnson said. “We’re considering an appeal, but we still have time to make a decision.” 

 

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.

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