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Loss of prison population means big changes down the road for districts in Swift County, Minn.

The now defunct Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton is pictured in this undated photo. Tribune photo

BENSON -- The loss of 1,400 inmates from the privately owned and now defunct Appleton prison will create huge shifts in the Swift County Commissioner districts -- change that could result in the forced election of all five commissioners.

Swift County Auditor Byron Giese predicted there's a "99 percent chance" that all the seats will be up for election this year because of redistricting.

Commissioner Doug Anderson, whose term is up this year, has already said he's not going to run for re-election.

But pending approval of the redrawn county map, all the other commissioners may have to launch a re-election campaign even if their terms don't expire in 2012.

Redistricting takes place to balance the population of each district based on the latest census figures.

Under state law, if the population shift in a county commissioner district is greater than 5 percent, then the county commissioner representing that district must stand for re-election.

When the last census was taken, Swift County had a total population of about 11,956 -- which included the prison inmates at the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton even though they were ineligible to vote.

Because the total population of the county had to be equally divided, all five districts had about 2,400 people.

The city of Appleton is currently divided into two districts, including District 1, which includes the prison.

That means that of the 2,400 people in that district, 1,400 were inmates and only 350 people were eligible voters, Giese said.

Now that the prison has closed and the 1,400 inmates are gone, the county's total population is at 9,783, according to the 2010 census, and each district will have to be realigned to accommodate the huge shift in population from that one targeted area.

"Every one of our county districts is out of whack because of the prison," Giese said.

Giese said he's drawn several maps, and asked others to take a shot at it too, to get the numbers to work out so that every commissioner won't have to run for election.

So far it hasn't been done, he said.

"We're going to try and make it fair," said Giese, adding that he intends to discuss the issue with the commissioners at their March 6 meeting.

The commissioners will need to set up a committee to review the data and draw up proposals. The process also includes a public hearing and community input before the commissioners give final approval before the May 1 deadline.

"There are some logical ways of doing it," Giese said, who's optimistic a workable plan will evolve. "But there aren't a lot of options."

If the flux in population of each district changes enough to require an election in each district, it does present the possibility that every incumbent could be defeated. That would result in a board made up entirely new commissioners who wouldn't have the history or experience in overseeing county business.

"It'd be such a learning curve, it's unreal," said Giese, who is retiring next spring, taking 32 years' worth of county knowledge with him. On top of that, the county's longtime county recorder retired this winter.

Even if all five seats are up for grabs this year, no one is predicting that would result in five new commissioners. Giese said there has not been a lot of controversy with the board and he has not heard of a community push for a change in leadership.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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