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This week West St. Paul held their first ever virtual City Council meeting in response to the social distancing required by the coronavirus. The mayor, city manager, city attorney, and city clerk were at city hall and council members attended virtually using webinar technology. Members of the public were able to call in for citizen comments and public hearings.
(In honor of the virtual meeting, we created a coloring book featuring the council chambers.)
The new format took some getting used to and there were a few technical hiccups, but in general the public had a voice and the council could still conduct business.
The big items on the agenda were a proposed repealing of the prevailing wage ordinance, the North Gateway apartment project, and the Net Ministries expansion.
The first item of official business on tonight’s agenda was to declare an official state of emergency. Mayor Dave Napier declared it on Friday and the City Council approved it tonight. It’s unclear when the last time the city declared a state of emergency, if ever.
The declaration allows the city to request funding and gives the city manager, mayor, and council more power to take immediate action.
It will remain in effect until the council rescinds it.
The debate over repealing the prevailing wage was the most contested item on the agenda, as evidenced by the 50 calls and emails Mayor Napier reported receiving.
Ultimately, the Council voted unanimously not to repeal the prevailing wage ordinance. So West St. Paul’s 2007 ordinance requiring construction projects that use more than $50,000 in public funds to pay a prevailing wage will remain in place.
This debate came up in the first place thanks to the workforce and senior apartments proposed for the former K-mart site by Dominium Development. They had requested tax-increment financing (TIF), which raised the issue of the prevailing wage ordinance.
There was some debate over whether or not this ordinance has ever been enforced. Previous discussions indicated it might not have been, though at this week’s meeting the city stated that was incorrect and it has always been enforced.
Dominium seemed surprised by the prevailing wage ordinance and said if it were enforced the project couldn’t go forward. Lack of knowledge about the ordinance and potential loss of the development spurred the council to reconsider the ordinance.
As noted above, the mayor and council reported receiving a lot of feedback from constituents in support of the prevailing wage ordinance.
That made for some tense moments at the beginning of the virtual meeting as a number of residents tried to call in and speak to the prevailing wage repeal during citizen comments. But they weren’t allowed to speak because that item was on the agenda. Some accused the city of trying to limit public comment during a time of crisis.
However, citizen comments are always limited to items not on the night’s agenda. If the council approved the repeal (and they did not), it would have gone forward to a second reading at the next meeting where a full public hearing would be required (which allows time to publish the proposed ordinance to better inform the public). That’s the process mandated by city charter, and it happens for every ordinance. If the meeting were happening in the council chambers like normal, the same process would have been followed and no one would have been allowed to speak to the prevailing wage repeal during citizen comments.
Complaints accused the city of not adequately promoted the meeting and making it less accessible to the public. In fact, the city announced the meeting in the way it always does, and also sent out several updates about the meeting being conducted virtually. In some ways, the virtual format with the call-in for public comment actually made the meeting more accessible.
One caller demanded to know about a recall process to replace elected officials. Mayor Napier seemed surprised and pointed to the coming election in November. But there is a recall process in West St. Paul (see section 5.13 of the City Charter): It requires signatures of 15% of the registered voters in the last election, so in this case that’s about 1,800 signatures in 30 days to recall the mayor. (Reminder: The filing period to run for mayor or council opens May 19.)
For all the uproar over prevailing wage, it’s worth noting that West St. Paul is the only municipal government in Dakota County with a prevailing wage ordinance that applies to private development.
Given the overwhelming response in support of the ordinance, the debate to repeal it didn’t go anywhere. All Council members were quick to express support.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Council Member Wendy Berry.
“I have to concur, after some deep thinking, that the prevailing wage ordinance is there, we shouldn’t jump to a snap conclusion and remove it,” said Council Member Dick Vitelli, who spent his career as a union electrician and previously supported the repeal.
“It’s OK for a council to pull out an ordinance and re-evaluate it,” Mayor Napier said responding to some of the pushback. “We’ll come out of this stronger. I think we’re doing our job.”
The Council voted unanimously to deny the repeal, so the prevailing wage ordinance remains in place.
There was concern over what happens next and if the apartment project can be salvaged. It will come down to whether Dominium will accept a prevailing wage. Other factors include whether or not the property owner will lower their price or if the city will increase their subsidy.
- North Gateway: Dakota County is building a 54-unit workforce housing apartment at the corner of Robert and Annapolis. We’ve covered this project before and the most controversial issue was that it came to Council without input from Planning Commission, since they cancelled their meeting due to lack of quorum. Council approved the project, primarily to allow the County to stick to their schedule of construction starting in April.
- NET Ministries: This Catholic mission organization on the southern end of the city has a planned expansion that will increase the size of their building by about 30%. Again, discussion centered on the lack of Planning Commission input. Ultimately the Council moved the project forward, again citing an April construction date.
- Council Comments: Council members encouraged the public to be healthy and stay safe during this crisis. Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne encouraged people to sit in their front yards so we can see our neighbors. She also reminded people to only flush toilet paper. Council Member Anthony Fernandez noted that we’re in “uncharted territory” and could be in for a big economic decline. Mayor Napier reminded people that Neighbors, Inc. is in need of donations.
- Ordinance Changes: The second reading of several ordinance changes went through, including public hearings. These were mostly minor—vacating easements, changing pawn shop reporting requirements, and a change allowing cosmetic tattooing.
- Trail and sidewalk: The consent agenda included the conclusions of a trail and sidewalk study for Thompson and Oakdale. The city will pursue funding options for trail on the south side of Thompson and sidewalk on the north, and trail on the east side of Oakdale and sidewalk on the west.
- Hy-Vee: The Council approved a minor plat change for the Hy-Vee development (hey look, it is still moving forward).
City Council meetings are currently held virtually 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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