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An estimated 350 people descended on the West St. Paul city hall for this week’s City Council meeting. The hot topic on the agenda? The Wakota Life Care Center’s expansion.
But first a few other items…
The back and forth dance of development projects continues in West St. Paul:
- Kmart apartments: The proposed workforce and senior apartments on the former Kmart site took another step forward as the developer and the Economic Development Authority (EDA) split the difference on their disagreement over tax increment financing (TIF) and settled on a 13.5 year term. Another new hurdle is a question over whether or not a prevailing wage standard would be required (the developer didn’t plan for that, so if it is required it could be a big problem).
- North Gateway: The long empty stretch of land on the west side of Robert just south of Annapolis has a new plan for proposed workforce housing from Dakota County. It’s two, 60-unit buildings that would have an even split of one-bedrooms and studio apartments. It doesn’t include any mixed use and the county hasn’t had any traction working that in. Council was generally receptive to the housing plan, but not happy with the aesthetics—especially for a “gateway” development.
- Bye-Bye brewpub: You might think this is why 350 people came to City Council, but no. In July the EDA approved a development agreement for a brewpub on the corner of Robert and Wentworth. The developer’s financing fell through—specifically they lost the bank that made the project financially viable—and the EDA dissolved the development agreement. That West St. Paul brewpub isn’t going to happen (at least not right now).
Related reading: Does West St. Paul need more apartments? Yes.
The City Council filled four open positions on city committees and commissions:
- Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee: Incumbents Mike Petrasek and Jay DeLaRosby were reappointed, and new member Kirsten Mulraney was appointed.
- Environmental Committee: New member Laura Zanmiller was appointed.
- Planning Commission: The mayor gets to make these appointments, and they’ll happen at the next meeting.
While this round of openings is mostly filled, you can learn more about serving on committees and apply for future openings.
Wakota Life Care Center Expansion
The big drama at tonight’s meeting came from the proposed expansion of the Wakota Life Care Center, a crisis pregnancy center located on Robert Street. A big crowd turned out for the meeting, including 38 people speaking during the public hearing.
West St. Paul Police Lieutenant Matt Swenke estimated the crowd in the council chambers and lobby at 350. (Apparently no building capacity is posted, likely due to the current construction in city hall, so South Metro Fire said they couldn’t enforce any capacity limits.)
With the big crowd came complaints that some people weren’t being allowed to enter or told they couldn’t speak in the public hearing. Unfortunately, some people did report being harassed as they left the meeting. (Update, Jan. 28: Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne gave an update today that city staff will address concerns with building capacity and safety going forward.)
The Back Story
Wakota Life Care Center wants to demolish their existing single-story, 2,000-square-foot site and build a two-story, 9,785-square-foot facility.
Last week the Planning Commission unanimously denied their request, noting issues with the size of the building, the precarious parking situation, and concerns over granting a medical use when they’re not primarily engaged in medical work. Half a dozen people spoke during the Planning Commission’s public hearing to express opposition to the project.
City staff recommended passing the proposed plan but denying the request for a conditional use permit (CUP) for medical use, which would still allow Wakota Life to move forward with their expansion.
The issue quickly escalated when Wakota Life Executive Director Dan Saad accused the half dozen women who spoke at the Planning Commission of “infiltrating” the government and swaying the Planning Commission vote.
Those comments from Saad prompted a response from three city council members—John Justen, Wendy Berry, and Lisa Eng-Sarne—who all recused themselves from the issue before the discussion began. All three then left the room so as not to influence the proceedings in any way, a standard practice for recusal that the city attorney affirmed.
They cited Saad’s accusations that city officials would be biased (Justen also read an email from Saad) and pointed to personal issues in supporting, working for, or being endorsed by pro-choice organizations that could be used to claim a perceived bias (Justen and Berry) or conflict of interest (Eng-Sarne). While they all noted they would make fair and unbiased decisions, the perception of bias could create a legal problem for the city.
“I find the content of these two communications and the implications and characterizations contained within baseless and disturbing. As someone who both in my campaign and during my public service has promised to be an advocate for under-served and under-represented groups in our city, I’m compelled to speak out against these sorts of inflammatory and inaccurate statements, particularly when they are documented and entered into the public sphere. This sadly leads to another duty I must follow as a public official for the good of my constituents and the legal standing of the city. It is possible my opinions on these statements could lead to a perception of bias and any votes I make on this particular CUP, site plan, and plat request. As such, I’m legally required to recuse myself from item 10 on tonight’s agenda.”Council Member John Justen
“For the last year I’ve made decisions behind this table based solely on fact, legal findings, and ordinances, not based on any personal opinions. I’m confident tonight’s issue is no different. However, during my campaign I was endorsed by two organizations with missions to support decidedly pro-choice candidates. I also have grave concerns regarding the applicant’s ability to treat all women without bias or judgment based on multiple forms of communication. Those women, Mr. Saad, are in vulnerable places when they come and see you. Because these reasons bring about a strictly perceived bias toward this application, specifically by the applicant, which is false, I am required by our code of ethics to recuse myself from the decision making process for this item.”Council Member Wendy Berry
“If you were to look at the organizations I’m a member of, donate to, employed by with great conviction, and marched along side, you will understand why I must recuse myself from the vote today. If this vote were to fail, I would not want anything to come into question regarding any conflict of interest on my part and how it affected the outcome of the vote. The perception that I’ve planted a flag in the ground in regards to the issues discussed today could possibly remain, and honesty, integrity, and due process are critical in this role.”Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne
(Their explanation begins at about 16:30 in the video if you want to watch the full explanations for yourself.)
I’m not sure on the history or precedent here, but I’ve never seen or heard of half a city counsel recusing themselves at once.
The recusal brings up a very nerdy discussion on how many votes are required to pass at City Council (yes, that was me asking the point of order question at the end—go nerds!). Generally four votes from the six-member body are required to pass (and the mayor doesn’t vote unless there’s a tie), regardless of how many members are absent. So in the past, with only five members present, an item receiving three yes votes and two no votes would still fail because it needs four to pass.
But, according to City Attorney Kori Land, a recusal is treated the same as a vacancy on the council, which recalculates the quorum and majority requirements. So only a simple majority is needed to pass. Now you know.
The Public Hearing
After a brief presentation on the facts, the public hearing opened and went on for nearly two-and-a-half hours. Speakers were evenly split, approximately 20 in support of the project and 18 opposed—though the crowd was clearly slanted in favor.
Those in support of the Wakota Life Care Center’s expansion emphasized the good work the organization has done, the people they bring to the community, and the professionalism of the staff.
Those opposed to Wakota’s expansion often agreed with the good work, but emphasized concerns over city planning issues and potentially misleading or unethical practices (the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics was cited multiple times).
(The public hearing started at about the 43-minute mark in the video if you want to watch the full comments.)
As City Attorney Kori Land pointed out, this issue had to be decided on the legal merits of the case, not any political or personal view. Did the site plan meet city code and ordinances? As that American Medical Association source noted, these types of centers may be unethical, but they are legal.
Ultimately, the remaining three City Council members voted unanimously to approve the plans, as well as the contested CUP.
(Full disclosure: One of the people speaking in opposition to the Wakota Life Care Center was my wife, Abby Hendricks.)
Update (Jan. 30): More Coverage
A City Pages article covering the Wakota Life Care Center debate went live Thursday, the first outlet to cover the story after this one (and hey, they linked to us).
- Crime is up: According to the city’s 2019 annual report, shoplifting is up 83% since 2018.
- Zoning change: NET Ministries is looking to expand their training, which requires a zoning change. Council was receptive and it will come forward through the formal process.
- Longest meeting?: While tonight’s meeting probably set attendance records (which I don’t think exist), it did not set a record for the length. That honor goes to the 3-hour-and-53-minute Oct. 28, 2019 meeting, when the proposed apartment on the former golf course was on the agenda. At 3 hours and 31 minutes, this meeting was still pretty damn long. It does get the honor of longest meeting of the year, but seeing as it’s only the second meeting of 2020, that doesn’t mean much. But now Council has a new goal.
City Council meetings are open to the public and generally held on the second and fourth Mondays of each month at 6:30 p.m. You can also watch this meeting online.
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