Little Falls’ City Council wards will be changing before the 2022 election.

Due in large part to the annexation of the Belle Prairie area in the time since the 2010 census, the population of ward two — the northeast part of Little Falls — is now considerably higher than the other two wards; the west and southeast portions of town. According to 2020 census data, there are 2,683 people in ward one (southeast), 3,861 in ward two and 2,596 in ward three.

“We very much have to do something,” said City Administrator Jon Radermacher. “I think it’s pretty clear and evident based on the statutory law that our political boundaries as wards should have as equivalent of a population as is feasible. Now that we have the most recent census data available to us, we can make a determination of what that is.”

The Council essentially had three options to remedy the issue.

The first would be to create an ordinance that changes the ward boundaries to even up the population in each. The second would be to add wards, though that would require a special election in February. That might not be possible if the State Legislature has not finished the Congressional redistricting process. The third would be to change the city’s charter to allow for changes, but that would require a charter commission and could put the city at risk of not meeting the March 29, 2022, redistricting deadline.

The Council agreed that, in order to avoid issues going into the 2022 election, the best course of action would be to go with the first of those options in the short-term. It can then decide, after the fact when there is more time, if it wants to pursue one of the other avenues in advance of the 2024 election.

As such, Radermacher used block data from the 2020 census to come up with two potential boundary configurations that would even the population within each of the wards. He presented them for discussion Monday, though the city does not have to adopt an ordinance until next spring. In fact, it can’t formally adopt the new boundaries until after the state process is finished, which will likely not happen until February or March 2022.

“In order to modify the boundaries and maintain concentric and contiguous, the west side needs to capture part of the east,” Radermacher said.

Ultimately, about 450 people will need to be captured from the east side of the Mississippi River and absorbed into ward three, which right now consists exclusively of residents on the west side of the river.

Both of the two options would put the Highland Avenue neighborhood that is currently part of ward one, along with the Maple Island townhomes, in ward three. That would put about 250 people into ward three.

One of the options would use First Street from the Highland Avenue neighborhood all the way north to the Highway 10 overpass as the new eastern boundary of ward three. The area between the river and First Street, north of Broadway Avenue, would include 221 more people.

The other option would move the area around the Little Falls Golf Course — such as Edgewater Drive, Golf Road, etc — to ward three. That block area also includes 221 people. Part of the current second ward, likely a couple blocks north of Broadway Avenue East, would then be moved to ward one.

The first of those options would put 3,055 residents in ward one, 3,023 in ward two and 3,062 in ward three. The latter would equal 3,042 residents in ward one, 3,034 in ward two and 3,064 in ward three.

“The other key element in picking boundaries, we do not have to stay with census block groups, but it just makes things easier in determining the population counts, and we want to stay on streets,” Radermacher said. “We want to be able to geographically define where the boundaries are, and using streets is an easier way of establishing where the boundary’s going to be.”

Another issue to keep in mind as the city moves forward in the process is polling places. That’s where the state could throw a wrench into the whole situation.

If the State Legislature, in its own redistricting process, chooses to use the Mississippi River as a boundary between federal Congressional districts, it would force the city to add polling places. If, for example, the city opted for the first of the aforementioned examples using First Street as a boundary all the way to Highway 10, those residents west of First Street would be in the third city ward, but in a different Congressional district than their neighbors on the west side of the river. That would necessitate a new polling place for those residents.

If the state keeps the entire city as part of the same Congressional district, as it currently is, those new ward three residents on the east side will vote on the west side of the river.

The Legislature has a deadline of Feb. 15, 2022, to come up with a new redistricting map. If it fails to do so — which is likely, due to the fact that Democrats control the House and Republicans have the majority in the Senate — the Minnesota State Supreme Court would create the map. That could take until early March 2022.

All of those factors led the Council to conclude its only realistic option, for now, is to re-draw the boundaries and address any further changes following the 2022 election.

“We could just basically do it for one year,” Radermacher said. “I know it’s going to be a huge pain and inconvenience for everybody, but we’re pretty much in a position where there’s going to be pain and inconvenience caused whatever way we go, because we can’t sustain what we currently have and still fall within a defensible makeup of our wards.”

“What would the timeline be from the census data to the state if we didn’t go through the pandemic?” asked Council Member Leif Hanson. “Would it be the same? Or how delayed are they on their end?”

Radermacher said, in a normal year, the State Legislature would have had the census data by April. However, its Feb. 15 deadline for coming up with a new map would have been the same.

Hanson clarified that he asked that question because he was curious if there was any way the city could appeal to the state to leave everything as-is for the next election due to the time crunch. His hope was to only have to go through the redistricting process once.

City Attorney Alissa Harrington said that was not a possibility. She said the intent was to have everything reset before the 2022 election.

“If you do not fulfill the redistricting duties by the given date, or maybe a small period of time after that, it actually negatively effects the city council members’ pay,” she said. “There are negative consequences for it. There isn’t the ability to have any kind of way out of it. But you certainly can reset them after that first year.”

In the time between when the new boundaries are adopted and the November 2022 election, Radermacher said it will be paramount the city engages and communicates with residents so everyone knows where their polling place will be and with which ward they’ll be voting.

Before it decides on how the boundaries are redrawn — even if it might be temporary — he said the next step in the process is to get feedback from the community in terms of which option it felt was better.

“We can take the time now to gather input saying, ‘The intent is to go with three wards for the 2022 election for sure,’” Radermacher said. “‘After that, if we want to split and you want to split and you go back to the question of sustaining all of the west side as having its own jurisdictions.’”

Hanson added that he also wanted the city to keep a pulse on what is happening at the Legislature so that, if it drags the process out any further than expected, the Council can ask for some sort of remedy.

He reiterated that it would be best if the city had to only “upset the apple cart” one time.

“If we adopt this by ordinance, it can just stay that way, right?” asked Council Member Raquel Lundberg. “We don’t have to do anything later, at all.”

“I think if we do it well and we take the time ... that if we gather the input and make sure that we hear from the community and what they want, then there is some possibility that we get it right in the ordinance and don’t feel like it’s necessary to make that major shift on the redistricting side,” Radermacher said.

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