Following Lisa Jacobson’s narrow win for the mayor’s seat in Brooklyn Park, the City Council declared a vacancy for her former east district council seat Sept. 7.
It was the second time in a year that the council has declared such a vacancy, again triggering a special election to fill a vacant seat. The city now must grapple with state law and the City Charter to determine the timeline for the next special election.
Charter provisions and state law could potentially keep the seat vacant for more than a year. However, city staff members have proposed amending the charter for this specific election to allow for a shorter timeline, with the election early in 2022.
“It’s a balancing thing,” said Jim Thomson, city attorney. “Is it better to, for one year, change that rule so you can have less of a time when you only have six council members, or is that not a choice you want to make? So it comes down to a policy decision for the City Council.”
Former Mayor Jeff Lunde resigned from the council in January 2021 following his election to the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners. His resignation triggered a special election, the result of which brought Jacobson to the mayor’s office.
Jacobson’s vacated term on the council representing the east district ends Dec. 31, 2024. Since there are more than 365 days remaining in the term, the charter requires that the city host a special election. If more than two candidates file for the race, the charter mandates a primary election.
The charter has a process for appointing a council member if there are fewer than 365 days remaining in a term.
State laws, passed relatively recently, allow for a limited number of dates on which a city is allowed to host a special election or primary.
Special primaries and elections can be held on the second Tuesday in February, April, May, August, or the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Tied in with those dates are specific time-based requirements for posting public notices for candidate filing, polling place locations and sample ballots, as well as a mandated time period for absentee voting.
Absentee voting must begin no later than 46 days prior to any election, including a primary election.
Affidavits of candidacy must be filed no more than 70 days and no fewer than 56 days before a special election.
The charter also has time requirements for elections that do not necessarily align with state law.
The charter requires that the council order a special election within 45 days after declaring a vacancy.
Further complicating the issue is the question of redistricting. The U.S. Census Bureau has released the results of the 2020 census for redistricting purposes, and there is potential that with the city’s population growth, district lines will be changed in March or April of 2022.
The city cannot host a primary with one set of district lines, then change those lines for the election.
While no timeline has been finalized, if the city follows the letter of the law and the charter as they exist today, a primary could be held in August 2022, with a special election in November 2022.
However, if the city amends the charter to remove the requirement for a primary, the timeline could move up, allowing for a special election in February 2022. The amendment would only impact this specific election, keeping the primary requirement in place for future elections.
If the Charter Commission and the council agree that this is the best option moving forward and they amend the charter by ordinance, candidate filling would tentatively open in late November.
This timeline represents the earliest possible date for the election, assuming the commission and council move forward with the plan as soon as possible.
Thomson said that the council could also consider amending the charter to allow for an appointment to occur in this case.
Devin Montero, city clerk, estimated that the recent special election for mayor cost the city between $50,000 and $60,000. The east district election is expected to cost between $30,000 and $40,000, he said.
It would not be unprecedented for the city to host a special election without a primary.
In 2011, following the death of former Mayor Steve Lampi, the city hosted a special election to fill the mayor’s seat.
At that time, while the charter mandated a primary election if more than two candidates filed to fill a council seat, it did not address the issue of a vacancy in the mayor’s seat.
As a result, a dozen candidates were on the ballot, forcing the likelihood that the winner would have less than 50% of the total vote.
Lunde ultimately won the race with 32% of the vote in the low-turnout, off-year election.
In 2014, the charter was amended to require a primary election for both council and mayor vacancies.
Jacobson and Councilmember Boyd Morson spoke against using an appointment process to fill the seat.
“I think what worries me about an appointment, then that’s us making the decision rather than the community coming out and making that decision,” Jacobson said.
Given the cost, Morson questioned the continued use of special elections to fill vacancies. “I don’t think that’s advantageous, in my opinion, for us to continue to do that when special elections occur, when vacancies occur,” he said. “I think we should consider something else as well.”
Pha said the new process should be consistently applied in the likely event that another special election is required.
“It’s going to be the same scenario because of the changes the Legislature has made to our election process,” she said.
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