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Erik Burgess, Published August 12 2013

Moving Moorhead city elections to even-numbered years is on November ballot

MOORHEAD – City elections would move to even-numbered years if voters approve the change in November.

Last summer, city council members resoundingly shot down a resolution to move city elections to even-numbered years, lining them up with state and federal elections.

Now the proposed change – which could save the city thousands in odd-year election costs – will go to a vote on Nov. 5 election.

Odd-year elections in Moorhead cost on average $16,000 and only involve city offices. County and school board posts are voted for in even years.

The city’s 10-person Charter Commission can propose changes to the charter – the city’s founding document – in many ways. One way is to ask the council to vote on a change, a method that failed last year.

The Charter Commission can also bypass the council and go directly to a vote of the people, which it chose to do this year.

City Council members on Monday recognized that the Charter Commission has that right, but several were frustrated with Councilman Mark Altenburg, whom they accused of using city staff to persuade the Charter Commission to propose the change.

Altenburg said he recommended that the Charter Commission propose the change again because it can save the city money.

But Councilman Mark Hintermeyer said because city staff made a presentation to the Charter Commission last week, there was a false impression the full council supports changing city elections to even years.

Several council members argued Monday that if city elections are moved to even years, the waters would be muddied with state, federal and partisan issues.

“Our local issues will get lost in the fray. I’ll guarantee you,” Councilwoman Nancy Otto said.

Hintermeyer said moving city elections to even years would also guarantee that those challenging an incumbent would have their voices lost in the noise of state and federal races.

Altenburg said he did not direct city staff to present to the Charter Commission, but rather the Charter Commission asked City Clerk Michelle French to make a presentation. He reminded his fellow council members that they are the ones who nominate members of the Charter Commission.

“We trust their judgment,” Altenburg said. “These are people that we appointed and they want this on the ballot. ... I don’t think this is the end of the world for local elections.”

Altenburg also pointed out that there is a 73 percent voter turnout in Moorhead for even-year elections and only a 24 percent turnout for elections on odd years.

Moorhead is one of only a handful of cities in Minnesota that still conduct odd-year elections, he said.

“The people of Moorhead are tired of having elections every year,” he said.

Altenburg added that the Charter Commission is “very frustrated with this council,” and it was their right to go straight to the people.

“Maybe it should be a signal to the council … if we shoot them down, they can go straight to the ballot,” he said.

The proposed charter change would require a simple majority, 51 percent, to pass, said City Attorney John Shockley.

If voters approve the change, it would go into effect for the next election cycle and those elected this year would still start their terms in 2014, Shockley said.

If the elections are moved to even years, state law states that the term of the incumbent is extended to the subsequent even-numbered year, unless the council crafts an ordinance saying otherwise, Shockley wrote in a memo.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518