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Decorah Power loses energy vote

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Good Shepherd Lutheran Church was a polling station during the referendum for many Luther students.

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church was a polling station during the referendum for many Luther students.

Cara Keith (‘21) | Chips

Cara Keith (‘21) | Chips

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church was a polling station during the referendum for many Luther students.

Cara Keith, Staff Writer

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On May 1, Decorah residents voted on whether to further discussion on the creation of municipalized energy. When the polls closed, the option that did not allow Decorah to continue exploring municipalized energy was ahead by four votes. When 15 absentee ballots were counted a week later, the margin was five votes, 1,385 to 1,380.

Voting “yes” would have allowed the Decorah City Council to work with the Iowa Utilities board to potentially pursue a municipalization request. Voting “no” would prohibit the Decorah City Council from pursuing the idea of municipal energy any further.

As of now, Decorah receives power from Alliant Energy and the request for municipalization has surfaced as Decorah nears the end of its 25-year contract with the energy company. Alliant campaigned against municipalization and fought  to renew their contract with Decorah. Alliant’s main competitor has been a group called Decorah Power, which campaigned in favor of municipal energy.

The vote was so close on Tuesday that the uncounted 15 absentee ballots could have swung the vote either direction. According to Winneshiek County Auditor Ben Steines, absentee ballots can have an effect on the overall vote, especially with such a close vote.

“Any absentee ballots that come in that are postmarked before April 30 will be added to the count,” Steines said in an interview before the absentee ballots were counted. “We have a board of three people that comes in and examines each of the envelopes and checks the date of the postmark and they determine if it should be added to the count or not.”

We know the students were engaged in the process, served as volunteers in the campaign and participated in discussions. While there was debate about students participating in municipal elections, it is wonderful to see young people engaging in the process and debate.”

– City Manager Chad A. Bird

The fact that the vote was leaning towards “no” disappointed some members of Decorah Power. Decorah Power board member and Associate Professor of Political Science at Luther College Carly Foster is upset about the vote’s outcome.

“It’s sad and it’s disappointing,” Foster said. “We worked very hard on this and I was very supportive of this idea. I think it really would’ve been a good thing for Decorah, and I’m disappointed that we didn’t get quite enough votes. On the other hand, we knew we were fighting an uphill battle against a big company with really deep pockets. The structure of the way this whole process works is strongly biased in favor of Alliant and in some ways it was miraculous that we came this close.”

Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies and Decorah Power board member John Jensen explains why the close vote may not be a negative thing for the town of Decorah.

“The one thing we can say definitively is that it [was] a close vote,” Jensen said. “And I think the fact that it was a close vote is what we need to focus on moving forward. Clearly half the community thinks this is something we should be looking at. I think the most important question is, ‘what does the city do with this going forward?’”

Even before the final results were in, some expected a recount to occur next week, whether called by Alliant or Decorah Power, due to how close the vote was. Luther student and Decorah Power intern Geoffrey Dyck (18) thinks a recount will occur.

“If the absentee ballots come in and if it’s still vote no, or even if it starts to lean vote yes, expect a recount,” Dyck said. “It’s just way too close.”

While there was conflict between those who would like to consider municipal energy and those who would not, there was also debate surrounding whether or not Luther College students should vote in this election.

City Manager Chad A. Bird discussed what role students played in this city election.

“Until we canvass the election results, it will be difficult to tell what actual and specific impact students had on the election,” Bird said. “There is interest in counting and analyzing that impact. We know the students were engaged in the process, served as volunteers in the campaign, and participated in discussions. While there was debate about students participating in municipal elections, it is wonderful to see young people engaging in the process and debate.”

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