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St. Louis County Board backs election change

The St. Louis County Board voted 5-1 Tuesday to support changing the election term for one Iron Range county commissioner seat.

Under the proposal, the 7th District commissioner, a seat currently held by Steve Raukar, would run this year as usual. But that term would last for only two years, with a re-election in 2016.

The other northern county seats -- the 4th and 6th District commissioner seats -- would be elected this year to the usual four-year terms ending in 2018.

Starting in 2016, the 7th District would return to the usual four-year terms.

The change is intended to return to staggered terms among the three northern commissioners so not all are elected at the same time.

The proposed change must now clear the 2014 Minnesota Legislature and be signed by Gov. Mark Dayton. Commissioners had to suspend their rules to pass the proposal so the legislation could be introduced before the Legislature's March 21 deadline for new bills at the Capitol.

County officials said the bills are expected to be sponsored by Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, and Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.

The board would then vote again on the election term after the legislation enabling the change becomes law.

An amendment that would have left which northern district term would be staggered -- the 7th, 6th or 4th -- to be determined by later action of the board failed on a 4-2 vote.

The 7th District generally includes the southwestern quarter of the county, including Hibbing, Chisholm, Meadowlands, Floodwood and Brookston.

Since a 2002 court order, which ended a bitter legal dispute over the St. Louis County Board's redistricting plans drawn after the 2000 census, all three Iron Range commissioners have been on the same election rotation. That court order expired in 2012, however, allowing the change back to staggered terms for the northern commissioners.

Raukar said the 7th District seat historically had been elected during presidential year elections "for 140 of the county's first 155 years." Raukar said the staggered terms are important to avoid the possibility of losing all northern incumbents in one election, which commissioners said would deprive the board of historic knowledge.

Raukar said the change would restore fairness, preventing the possibility of all northern commissioners changing over at one point. He noted

Duluth-area commissioners have staggered terms.

Duluth Commissioners Frank Jewell and Patrick Boyle supported the move, saying it has a historical basis.

But Chris Dahlberg of Duluth said he opposed the change, noting the single, two-year term may discourage people from running, especially against a long-term incumbent like Raukar. Dahlberg also opposed making the change with little or no public notice or input before the vote.

"This is affecting 35,000 citizens'' who live in the 7th District, Dahlberg noted before casting the only opposing vote.

Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely was absent for the meeting, but had expressed his support of returning to a staggered term.