Redistricting questions

Don’t believe everything you read in the Northfield News, especially not headlines like Redistrict? Council wants to eliminate wards.

The goal is balanced, accessible representation for the residents of Northfield.  Dividing the city into geographic wards is one way to try to meet that goal, but not the only way.

The big advantage of the ward system is giving designated representation to each quadrant of the city by a resident of that ward.  Ward residents know who to call if they have a problem.  2nd Ward residents have needed help with or had questions about street lights, snow-plowing (not this year, obviously), beavers, parks, mowing (or rather non-mowing of vacant lots), trees, city maintenance, and traffic near the soccer fields at Spring Creek Park.  In turn, I keep closer track of what happens in the 2nd Ward and if ward-specific issues show up on the agenda – street projects are the most obvious – I have a special interest in making the best choice for the ward as well as knowing more about my home territory.  Erica Zweifel has consistently advocated for her 3rd Ward constituents in the siting of the Safety Center, improving pedestrian and bicycle connectivity across Highway 3, and working with St. Olaf College.

But, consider some other factors:

Geography is often not relevant: most issues are not specific to one ward and it is difficult to identify a ward-specific perspective. This was one of 4th Ward Councilor Patrick Ganey’s reasons for raising the question.

No geographic division will cut cleanly: Neighborhoods cut across ward boundaries and there are multiple neighborhoods within each ward. As well, some constituencies are better defined than others.  Would it make more sense to assign Council members to represent the colleges, retirement communities, non-English speaking residents, or any other identifiable group?

Some Council members are more responsive than others; wards with conscientious representatives get much better representation and conscientious reps get more work.  Prior to the last election, I got a significant number of calls from two other wards because their own ward representative could not be reached.

Council members tend to have particular issues they care about, know about, and work to advance; we could each represent areas of government rather than areas of town.  Have a land use problem?  Call me.

The school board elects at-large representatives with the top vote-getters from the pool being elected (4 seats open, for example, then the top 4 win).  If the Council adopted this system, we might imagine it could broaden the candidate pool – if there are openings on the Council, a candidate would not have to wait for the right ward opening, two strong candidates who live in the same area might both be elected, candidates might find it less daunting to run as part of a group knowing they didn’t have to get the most votes.   On the flip side, campaigning only in one ward might seem simpler than a city-wide effort.

In practice, some of my time goes to ward-related constituent service while more of it goes to general city business like tax levies, policy-making, etc.  For the city business part, wards are less important.  But, when calls to city hall can’t get streetlights fixed or residents have questions about city issues and services that’s when having ward representatives or some other easy way to know who to call is crucial.  Wards, whatever their shortcomings, make it easy: if you know where you live, you can figure out your ward representative.

The decennial redistricting is at least an opportunity to ask if we can do a better job of representing Northfield residents than the current system and, if we think we’ve found a better system, then we need to ask voters if they agree.  It’s a discussion, not a decision at this point.

5 thoughts on “Redistricting questions

  1. I think you are heading in the wrong direction here, Betsey. If anything, public connection with the school system would be stronger if the board members were elected based on geography. The average Joe or Jane does not see any particular person on the board as their representative, and so they tend to go the schools’ professional staff when there is a problem rather than the elected people. The other categories you suggest councilors might represent seem off. The colleges themselves have lots of hired hands to help them deal with the city as do retirement communities. The ward system may actually benefit non-English speakers since they tend to live in congregated areas in Northfield.

    I’m very happy to be able to call you if I have an issue with the city. Let’s not dilute people’s connection to their elected officials.

    • I’m not heading toward or away from wards; I’m interested in taking the opportunity of redistricting to ask whether the system is working. The comments advocating keeping the ward system (on Locally Grown, Northfield News plus letters and email I’ve recieved) and the ease of knowing who represents you are powerful pluses for keeping wards.

      I would disagree, however, that colleges’ staff would be adequate because it is the students who are being represented, not the administration. Whether the college residents would be better represented by a geographically designated representative or one assigned by interest or expertise is the questions. Non-English speakers do congregate, but not in one ward; we have colleges in two wards – this raises the question of how best to represent communities of interest between or across town. Wards may be the best answer, but let’s ask the question.

      As for the school analogy, that’s another interesting one. When I’ve had issues with schools in the course of my daughter’s education, I go to the teacher (because it is in the classroom that issues have arisen), then the principal when the teacher has not been able or willing to help solve the problem. I haven’t yet had a problem related to my own experience which needed school board help. I used to complain annually to the principal and superintendent about wasting school time for fundraising and asking students to raise money for their own education, but I’ve given up on that one. For other issues I’ve been working on, like non-motorized transportation, it is the whole board and superintendent who are involved. At the city level, some issues I’ve helped constituents solve ARE staff issues which, if there were an obvious staff contact, probably don’t need my involvement at all except to connect someone with the person at city hall who can help them. I’m happy to do this, but cutting out the middleman would also be good.

      I’m standing at the crossroads, not down the road of abandoning wards. The Northfield News certainly jumped the gun with their headline and I’m asking everyone to ask questions first before assuming the answer.

  2. I think it is possible to argue both sides of this issue with great ease, and that just reinforces the idea that it is a change that should definitely go to a full public vote.

    But let’s just look at the most basic underlying principle: I would think that a ward representative, regardless of how strong the feeling for their ward’s specific needs are, should never violate any of the principles of the city’s governing documents… Right?

    So that says, the common good trumps all…

    But that does not mean that any at-large rep cannot take on a cause that needs to be represented for a neighborhood, even the same cause for two neighborhoods: i.e. that could be off campus student housing on the east and west sides of town;
    All of our manufactured housing (trailer parks) are now located on the northern edge of town; that is an underserved/underrepresented community that should be more fully represented by all councilors.

    So that says the emphasis can shift around, and be taken up by any number of councilors.

    There’s nothing to say that an at-large rep cannot pay close attention to the needs of their own neighborhood;
    I think the need for a ‘common good’ policy which benefits all, should be the strongest policy directive for each and every councilor.

    • I agree, Kiffi – both that changes to the ward system should go to the voters and that the common good should be our guiding policy. In practice, much depends on the energy and effectiveness of the Council members at the time and their willingness to learn, listen and take action.

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