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St. Louis County Board to set date for vote to replace O'Neil

St. Louis County commissioners today are expected to set a date for a special election to fill the seat vacated by the death of Steve O'Neil earlier this month.

Steve O'Neil
(File / News Tribune)

St. Louis County commissioners today are expected to set a date for a special election to fill the seat vacated by the death of Steve O'Neil earlier this month.

At a County Board workshop Monday in Pike Lake, commissioners learned they can set the special election for some time between December and May, according to state statutes, depending on how many people file for the office and whether county officials want to avoid holding an election near the holidays.

Only voters in the county's 2nd District, about the eastern third of Duluth, will participate. There are 15,808 registered voters in the 2nd District, out of about 29,000 residents.

The board is expected to suspend its own rules at today's regular board meeting in Floodwood, declare the seat open and set dates for the special election and, if needed, a primary.

County Attorney Mark Rubin and Auditor Don Dicklich on Monday laid out state statutes dealing with special elections for vacated county board seats.

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If a primary is needed, with three or more people filing for the seat, which is likely, the election could be held as early as Dec. 31. In any case, the special election must be held no later than May 13.

Rubin and Dicklich also gave an overview of the practical considerations, such as avoiding holding the special election on New Year's Eve and trying to hold a primary on the date of Duluth's general election on Nov. 5, both to save money and encourage the largest possible participation. Turnout for stand-alone special election primaries is notoriously low.

"My feeling is you want to hit that" Nov. 5 date for the primary, Dicklich told commissioners. "It would be very beneficial to the voting public."

Commissioners at Monday's workshop appeared to lean toward a Tuesday in January for the special election, such as Jan. 7 or 14. But some also expressed interest in having the new commissioner elected by the time the County Board holds its annual reorganizational meeting on Jan. 7.

While state statutes appear to allow the special election on any day of the week, some commissioners expressed support for leaving it on a Tuesday to cause less confusion. Dicklich agreed.

"I'd think you'd confuse the public" if it was on a day other than Tuesday, said Dicklich, who is in charge of administering elections in the county.

It appears candidate filing for the office would open about Aug. 20 and close Sept. 3. County officials noted that a primary is highly likely both in races where there is no standing incumbent and in special elections.

The last time a special election was held to fill a St. Louis County Board seat, in January 2001, a dozen candidates filed and ran in the primary, Commissioner Keith Nelson of Eveleth noted. Nelson finished third in that race but later won the 6th District seat at the next regular election.

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Commissioners did not discuss the option of appointing a temporary commissioner to fill O'Neil's position until a special election can be held. Commissioners have that option under state law but first must hold a public hearing, in August, to allow public input.

Commissioners could decide today to set that public hearing date and decide after that whether to appoint someone.

"They have that option," Rubin noted after Monday's discussion. "But there's also the issue of anyone they appoint, by the time they get up to speed on the issues, would be replaced by the winner of the special election."

O'Neil died July 16 after battling cancer. He was last re-elected in 2012. The winner of the special election will serve until O'Neil's term expires in 2016, when they would have to run again.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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