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Becker County puzzles over new districts

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Becker County commissioners are puzzling over how to establish new commissioner districts in the wake of healthy population growth following the 2010 census.

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No matter how they work the Rubik's Cube of redistricting, it looks like at least two commissioners, maybe more, will end up in the same district and will have to run against each other if they want to stay on the County Board next year.

Commissioners must live in the district they represent.

"It's hard for us to do this, we're going to have a commissioner running against a commissioner," said Board Chairman Barry Nelson. "Nobody wants to say 'this is where the runoff (election) should be,' but we're going to have to look at it."

Strong population growth

The county's population grew by about 2,500 over the past decade (to 32,504 in 2010) with much of that growth centered on Detroit Lakes and the southwestern corner of the county.

Redistricting is done every 10 years, if necessary, to make sure the five county commissioners represent a roughly equal number of people.

Growth in Detroit Lakes, which went from 7,348 people to 8,569 in the past decade, has put the existing districts out of balance.

Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Ryan Tangen has been in communication with the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office and answered several commissioner questions at Tuesday's county board meeting.

"You want commissioner lines as defined and compact as possible," he said.

The county board "is allowed to take into account sitting commissioners and not having them run against each other," Tangen added.

But the districts must form contiguous units, and the population numbers have to add up.

Nelson said commissioners should also look at how well various parts of the county fit together. Would Lakeview and Runeberg townships be a good fit for each other, for example, he asked.

A Detroit Lakes district?

City wards 2 and 3 are now populous enough to form their own commissioner district -- which would put a city resident on the county board for the first time in many years.

If city wards 2 and 3 can no longer be split between commissioner districts, neither can the townships of Lakeview and Burlington.

That's because a pie-shaped piece of northeastern Lakeview Township is cut off by the city and stands isolated. That means the townships have to be in the same district in order to be contiguous.

Putting Lakeview and Burlington Townships into one district could pit Commissioner Gerry Schram, who represents Burlington Township, against Commissioner John Okeson, who represents Lakeview Township.

Population targets

In a similar way, city growth to the north means city ward 1 and Detroit Township are hopelessly entwined and must remain together in a commissioner district.

That area is now represented by Commissioner Don Skarie, who lives in Detroit Township, but his district (which includes Audubon Township and the city of Audubon) is no longer big enough on its own to meet the requirements of redistricting.

The total population of Skarie's district is about 5,800, and each new district should have from 5,851 to 7,151 people to meet the requirements of redistricting.

If Hamden Township were added to Skarie's district, for example, he would not have to run for reelection next year (because his district remained relatively stable) but the new district created "would have a wrap-around affect," which is allowed but discouraged, Tangen said.

Growth out east, too

Commissioner Larry Knutson, who lives in Toad Lake Township, represents the eastern half of the county, which now has a combined population of 6,227, helped by moderate to strong population growth in the southeastern quarter of the county, particularly Runeberg Township in the very corner of the county.

Commissioner Barry Nelson, who lives in Lake Eunice Township, represents the western third of the county, including the Lake Park area, the townships of Lake Eunice and Cormorant, and the Ogema, White Earth and Callaway areas.

His district has a combined population of 6,922.

Schram represents an odd-shaped district just one township wide that stretches north to south across the center of the county. It includes the city of Frazee and the townships of Erie, Burlington, Holmesville, Maple Grove and Sugar Bush, with a total population of 6,001.

Okeson, who lives in Lakeview Township, represents that township and Detroit Lakes wards 2 ands 3, for a total population of 7,552.

Combining wards 2 and 3 into a new district would eliminate most of his district, and require Lakeview Township to be put into a district now represented by either Nelson or Schram.

Commissioners need to come up with maps of their preferred redistricting and bring them back for discussion, Nelson said.

"We need to look at what is best for the county, that's what you need to do," he told commissioners. "We need to bring those (ideas) to the table and take a look at them."

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