New Brighton petition looks to put election year change to a vote


Gina Bauman

Susan Erickson

Push goes all the way to state Capitol.

 

Months after the election loss that ended her 12-year tenure on the New Brighton City Council and weeks after her term expired at the end of 2017, Gina Bauman said she would return to more active community engagement after taking a breather. 

Bauman’s back from her break, and, with New Brighton resident and former council candidate Susan Erickson, back at working to stop the New Brighton council’s latest attempt to move city elections from odd to even years. 

Like in 2015, the last time New Brighton tried to make the switch, Bauman and Erikson are working on a petition that would put the election year move to a vote. 

But, unlike two years ago, they’ve also taken their mission to the Legislature, where they testified in support of an elections bill amendment that would have blocked New Brighton’s election year change

 

Why change?

Back when New Brighton tried to make the election year switch in November 2015, arguing even-year elections save the city money and engage more voters, the decision meant shortening Bauman’s and then- city council member Brian Strub’s terms, and lengthening the term of then-mayor-elect Val Johnson.

Bauman stopped the 2015 attempt through a petition and lawsuit. The petition was rejected by city staff and Bauman was censured by the New Brighton council, prompting her and Erickson to sue. The switch, said to be rushed by a judge, was ultimately deemed unlawful. 

The New Brighton council at its Dec. 12, 2017, meeting voted to change the year of the city’s elections from odd to even years, again. The change would include extending the terms of Mayor Val Johnson and newly elected council members Graeme Allen and Emily Dunsworth by one year. Allen and Dunsworth will get five-year terms, while Johnson will serve a three-year term.  

In an effort to make this attempt stick, the change was made more than 180 days before filing day for the next municipal election. City staff maintains the switch will save the city money, and, in a letter sent to all residents, the New Brighton council said more people turn out to vote in even years. In the letter, New Brighton said about 4,800 people voted last November and that nearly 13,000 people voted in the 2016 election, and more than 8,800 in the 2014 midterm. 

If the latest ordinance holds, the 2019 municipal elections will be cancelled and moved to 2020. 

 

‘I feel like they stole my vote’

In an interview, Erickson and Bauman said they have been door-knocking and talking to hundreds of people about their latest petition

“We want to get thousands of signatures to tell [the New Brighton City Council] that real people don’t agree with them,” said Erickson. “I feel like they stole my vote.”

“How can four, now five people, decide for 23,000 people that they get an extra year?” asked Bauman.

Bauman took issue with the city’s letter mailed to residents, saying it read as though adding an extra year to terms is the only way to handle the election year move and that the move is a done deal. Bauman said neither is the case. 

New Brighton also explained the election year move in a city magazine. “They spent thousands of dollars on pretty much propaganda, if you want to call it that,” said Bauman. 

Bauman and Erickson said the election year issue is not one the residents brought to the council. 

As the two make their way around New Brighton, they said they inform residents who are largely unaware of even or odd election year details. The two said residents become “puzzled” upon learning about the decision. 

“Therein lies my frustration with [the council]: you don’t do this to the citizens,” said Bauman, adding that she, and residents she’s spoken to, feel the decision is not about residents but about the council centralizing power and control. 

“I cannot stress enough for people of New Brighton to be more engaged with what’s going on,” said Bauman, “not blindly taking what is told to them without checking.”

At the Capitol

The petition needs signatures from 10 percent of the voters who participated in the most recent city election, according to New Brighton City Manager Dean Lotter, within 180 days of the council’s decision. 

That would be just more than 500 signatures by late June. If that number is met in time, and the petition is deemed legitimate, the election year decision will be put to a city referendum. 

Bauman and Erickson expressed confidence in reaching that number. And, if the petition is again rejected by the city, the two said they are again prepared to sue. 

They said they’ve talked with people outside of the city, and reached out to state legislators. 

Bauman and Erickson spoke before the Committee on State Government Finance and Policy and Elections at its March 29 meeting in the Minnesota Senate building in favor of an election bill amendment brought forward by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) that would block New Brighton’s latest election year switch. 

At that March 29 meeting, Erickson said the “amendment is needed to clearly state the procedure for changing the election year” and that “citizens should not have to bring a lawsuit to protect their vote.”

Kiffmeyer said she supports moving from odd to even year elections, but said the amendment was about the transition. 

New Brighton Mayor Val Johnson and council member Mary Burg spoke against the amendment at the meeting, listing saving money and voter engagement as reasons. Johnson said that “local control regarding local elections is very important.”

Senator Carolyn Laine (DFL-Columbia Heights) said during the meeting she found it interesting that the process for changing election years, which she said has worked for many cities and school boards over many years, is suddenly an issue in New Brighton and doesn’t think this one unique city situation should change state law for everyone. Laine said Erickson and Bauman lost city council election bids partly because of this issue, and that voters elected people who support the even-year election switch. 

There is already a process in place to stop election year ordinances, which is a petition, said Laine, making any further state legislation unnecessary. 

“We cannot change state law for all cities on the basis of two disgruntled people who did not get their way,” Laine said. 

The legislative season wrapped up in May without the bill passing. 

 

‘It’s not a moral issue’

In an interview, Lotter said the year-switch amendment is unlikely to pass after failing to do so during this legislative season, but that, when it comes to any piece of legislation, you can “never say never.”

Lotter said he has “eyes around the Capitol” who inform him if anything at the state level might have to do with New Brighton. One of Lotter’s “eyes” alerted him of Kiffmyer’s amendment fewer than 24 hours before it was to be presented, and he said he grabbed Johnson and Burg to the testify against it. 

Taking the city issue to the Capitol instead of “being upfront about it” with residents, Lotter argued, was “essentially trying to sneak something in.”  

Beyond the 2015 decision, Lotter said three different city councils supported the election year switch, each holding recorded meetings in a public venue. This last time round, Lotter said the council felt so strongly about being transparent that members held community meetings in February and March and sent a letter to every single resident.

By contrast, Lotter said Bauman and Erickson went to a state representative who does not represent the New Brighton area. He said he can guarantee not a single resident knew about Bauman and Erickson’s push at the capitol. 

“So many things, not about what they did but how they did it, was so wrong and offensive.” said Lotter. “When it comes to Bauman, she talks about being transparent but isn’t. It’s very unfortunate, frankly.”

Lotter said the election certificate, or the length of term in office, is not the complete conversation — under current statutes, according to Lotter, when a council moves an election year, it has to choose to shorten or lengthen terms, and that there is nothing inappropriate about doing so. 

“It’s not a moral issue,” he said, adding the suggestion that there’s a benefit to extending terms is a poor, inaccurate argument. “The current council is making it harder to get elected in the future.”

 

Passing muster

As for the future of the petition, Lotter said it will be reviewed by the city clerk to determine if it complies with state rules and statutes. He said the petition should have a clear title, clearly state what the resulting action is and needs to have information on every page so every signee is fully aware of the contents of it.

The petition in 2015, according to Lotter, was reviewed by City Clerk Terri Spangrud and independently by two attorneys, all agreeing it was invalid. Had Bauman and Erickson asked the city clerk to craft a petition that passed the rules, said Lotter, she would have. 

He said facilitating such things for residents is the clerk’s job and that, if any residents have a petition, the clerk will help with correct titling, verbiage and formatting, though he claimed that Bauman and Erickson may want their petition to be vague, or to purposefully not pass muster again.

As of May 24, Bauman and Erickson had not yet spoken with the New Brighton city clerk about the petition, according to Lotter. “And they won’t,” he said. 

With the 2015 petition, Lotter said he almost tasked the city clerk to actively prepare a template and send it to Bauman because, he said, that’s part of his job.

“I don’t have a lot of regrets,” he said, “but thats one.”

The lawsuit Erickson and Bauman brought in 2015 claimed that the city erred in invalidating the petition. But, according to Lotter, the judge set aside that question, choosing not to answer it, and instead focused on the dates and deadlines stated in statutes about moving election years. The judge ruled the 2015 ordinance to switch election years was passed too late and reversed the decision.

Lotter said that he and other city officials disagree with the judge, and that Dunsworth, who is the dean of a law school, had a colleague look at the case, who Lotter said found it “just bogus.”

Lotter said the city clerk is “proactively inclined” to accept Bauman and Erickson’s petition this time in order to avoid another bout in court. The only way a return to court is inevitable, he said, is if Bauman and Erickson’s petition is faulty, forcing the city’s hand. 

“That’s what they’ve been doing all along. I think they’re going out of their way to make the petition as grey as possible,” said Lotter. “That’s their tactic, their style.”

Bauman said the petition simply asks residents if they want the question of moving city elections to even years to be on the ballot. She claimed it’s not political, just the right thing to do. 

If the petition gets enough signatures and passes city review, the even-year election ordinance will be suspended and the question of moving city elections to even years will be on the ballot this November. 

 

– Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815

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