By Tim Leeds
After more than a month of planning, gathering comments, negotiations, and two deadline extensions, the Blaine County Commission has submitted a proposal to create districts for commissioner elections.
U.S. District Judge Philip Pro of Las Vegas ruled that Blaine County's at-large voting districts, in which the entire county voted in each commissioner election, violated the voting rights of Native American voters. On March 20, Pro directed the commissioners to submit a plan to divide the county into districts.
"I think we had some good input," Commission Chair Vic Miller said today. "We had some good discussion on things."
The commissioners submitted the official proposal to Pro on Tuesday, sending copies to the federal attorneys on the case, Miller said. The commissioners' attorneys will send copies to the American Civil Liberty Union attorneys who are representing the Fort Belknap Indian Community on the case.
The commissioners have faced many challenges in designing proposed districts, Miller said, like trying to create districts that satisfy everyone. Another problem is incorporating the population and aging shifts in the county.
The commissioners cited statistics showing that Blaine County's Native American population has grown by 16 percent since the 1990 census, mostly in the east, while the non-Native American population has dropped by 5 percent. The non-Native American population is aging, while the Native American population is younger, which also made designing the districts more difficult, the commissioners said.
If the plan is adopted, the districts will hold staggered elections, with a new commissioner elected to a six-year term every two years. The resolution says that existing commissioners will represent the districts until elections are held, although Miller resides in District Three and commissioners Don Swenson and Art Kleinjan both reside in District Two.
District One will hold an election this year.
Miller and Alan Brekke had declared as candidates in the at-large election this year, but Miller said Pro's ruling has changed all that. Miller will serve as commissioner for District One until a newly elected commissioner from the district is sworn in Jan. 1.
"On a humorous note, Alan and I will be holding a joint fund-raiser to get our filing fees back," Miller said.
The deadline to file for election was in March. It's up to Pro to extend the deadline so new candidates can file for election in the proposed District One, Miller said.
The proposed districts group most of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation into District One in the southeast corner of Blaine County, including the Fort Belknap Agency, along with Hays and Lodge Pole. Until new elections are held, Miller will represent the district.
District Two covers the southwestern corner of Blaine County and groups the communities of Chinook, Lohman, Cleveland and Lloyd. Swenson will represent the district, which will hold an election in 2004.
District Three, in northern Blaine County, skirts Chinook and groups the communities of Harlem, Zurich, Hogeland and Turner. Kleinjan will represent the district. District Three will hold an election in 2006.
The commissioners followed requirements set by Pro and several guidelines in drafting the proposed districts, Miller said.
District One contains about 90 percent Native American voters and about 10 percent non-Native American voters. District Two is the opposite, with 90 percent non-Native American voters and 10 percent Native American voters.
District Three contains about 40 percent Native American voters and about 60 percent non-Native American voters.
The commissioners held listening sessions in various Blaine County communities in April, working with federal attorneys, the attorneys representing Fort Belknap and an outside consultant while drafting the proposal.
Pro's decision resolved a civil suit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1999.