ROCHESTER - Olmsted County has a plan for its new commissioner districts, even after criticism over how Rochester is represented on the County Board.
The Olmsted County Board last week finalized its redistricting plan, choosing a proposal close to the previous map's boundaries. The plan gives Rochester residents a majority in five out of Olmsted's seven districts, with three districts within city limits.
The new map was part of six proposals the county drew up to include the county's 162,847 residents following the 2020 U.S. census, which showed population growth of 11.4 % during the decade. Counties must redraw district boundaries every 10 years after the latest census is collected and released.
Some residents called for Rochester to make up five out of the county's seven districts. The city holds about three-quarters of Olmsted County's population with 121,395 people as of 2020.
Jack Dudley, an organizer with the statewide faith coalition Isaiah, said he and others were concerned over how the map divides Rochester and cuts through neighborhoods.
He pointed to the boundary between the First District and Third District, which follows Marion Road SE. A large number of East African residents live west of Marion Road, while many of Rochester's Latino residents live east of the road.
Residents in neighborhoods of color can share similar perspectives and Dudley said he heard from several residents near Marion Road who were interested in coming together so they would have more influence within one district rather than split into two.
"It's not necessarily about who is representing but about communities and whether they're collectively able to pool their interests," he said.
County commissioners took umbrage at some of the criticism, saying it ignores how the board and the redistricting process deal with countywide concerns. County officials maintain the new map continues to balance rural and urban voters and tackles representing residents of color as best it can given how voters spread throughout the county.
"We are a little hot under the collar about this because we feel falsely accused when our staff have done an excellent job," Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said last week during a special session to finalize the redistricting map.
Commissioner Mark Thein dismissed some of the criticism as born from partisan activists who have "ulterior motives."
"I think it's certain individuals that are trying to use this as a steppingstone for other things," he said.
Boundary fights in city and county redistricting plans are fairly common, according to Peter Wattson, a redistricting expert and retired Minnesota Senate staffer. Wattson was the lead plaintiff in the 2021 lawsuit against the state that kicked off the Minnesota Supreme Court's redistricting process.
Communities often have concerns over being split by political boundaries, but what makes Rochester unique is how it's grown over time through annexing small parcels of land.
"It's scattered all over the place," Wattson said, making it a challenge to draw political maps that can reasonably group like communities together.
Only the Second District and Seventh District remain unchanged from 2020, and Thein is the only commissioner who doesn't have to run for re-election per state rules. At least four commissioners are retiring after this year, so those seats will be up for grabs in November.