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The West St. Paul City Council returned for in-person meetings for the first time in more than three months. The Council also had their first Open Council Work Session (OCWS) in more than three months, a workshop-style meeting where they talk through issues and no official action is taken. The agenda was packed, but the biggest issues of the night were the proposed apartment complex for the former K-mart site and policing.
The first in-person meeting since the COVID-19 shutdown meant social distancing, with public seating limited to just 10 in the council chambers and overflow in the lobby and conference room. Masks were not required, though about half the people were wearing them. The official Council meeting was broadcast on cable TV and online as well as available in the overflow spaces, but the OCWS and Economic Development Authority (EDA) work session were not broadcast (we incorrectly reported they were being broadcast).
Those access issues became a point of contention. During citizen comments, one person urged the city to bring back the call-in option, an argument echoed by Council Member John Justen during his council comments. At the end of the meeting, Council Member Anthony Fernandez also urged the city to find some way to broadcast the OCWS and EDA meetings for full transparency. The full Council agreed and it seems to be an issue of city staff making it happen.
COVID-19 issues were a theme during citizen comments, with one resident urging the city to mandate masks or at least heavily encourage their use. Other citizens wanted more amenities open, specifically noting the bathrooms at Harmon Park and the city pool.
Proposed Apartments at Former K-mart Site
Another point of contention was the proposed senior and workforce housing apartments at the former K-mart site by the developer Dominium. Three people expressed concerns about the project during citizen comments, mainly related to union issues and the rising subsidy Dominium is requesting. The Council considered the topic during the EDA meeting, so the details weren’t recorded or broadcast.
The project has hit a few bumps in the road, starting with negotiations over the subsidy in December and then the debate over the prevailing wage ordinance that surfaced in January and was settled in March.
Dominium was back with new numbers to make the project work, including the prevailing wage requirement. The $100 million project increased to $123 million with the addition of 24 units (for a total of 393 between the two buildings), $15 million for the prevailing wage, and other tweaks to the financing. The tax incremental financing (TIF) subsidy increased from $3.64 million and 13.5 years to $5 million and 16 years.
Speakers during public comments questioned these numbers and accused Dominium of trying to line their pockets. Council Members echoed their concerns, asking for a more straight-forward explanation of the numbers. Dominium defended their numbers, noting that the only reason they can make the project work at all is because of falling interest rates due to the pandemic. For that reason, they urged approval as quickly as possible because if interest rates rise, the project won’t happen. They’re also competing for limited funds from Dakota County.
Ultimately the Council asked for more clarity in the numbers at the next meeting and if they had that there seemed to be grudging support. If they approve the project in July, it will quickly move through Planning Commission and the public hearing process for potential demolition to start as early as September.
Police Use of Force
During the OCWS the Public Safety Committee reported back on their review of the police department’s Use of Force policy. The main takeaway is that the Public Safety Committee will continue the conversation and work to welcome public input and continue education with the public. (City Manager Ryan Schroeder did give a shout out to our recap of the meeting.)
There were a few new details highlighted:
- Warrior training: The city stopped doing so-called “warrior training” five to seven years ago.
- Engagement: The police department’s Facebook Live Q&As have proved popular, with more than 100 participants at any one time. Police Chief Brian Sturgeon will be doing another one himself in the next month.
- Mental health: A recent episode of Town Square Television’s The Good Stuff featured West St. Paul Officer Jesse Mettner talking about mental health.
The discussion also included an eagerness to increase education, specifically addressing the concerns people of color have within West St. Paul. Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne highlighted how the West St. Paul Police Department does a lot of things differently than departments like Minneapolis or St. Paul, but the public is largely unaware of those differences.
“I know we operate differently, but the public makes assumptions,” Eng-Sarne said. “How do we talk about the good we’re doing while also being open to input?”
A few public education and engagement options were discussed, including Facebook Live events, a citizen oversight committee, and round table discussions with the police chief.
Eng-Sarne pointed to examples on social media of Black children being afraid of the police. “We want people to trust you,” she said. “What can we do?”
“Everybody needs to put their phone down,” Mayor Dave Napier said. “Look around your community and see what’s going on.”
“That doesn’t help kids,” Council Member Wendy Berry interjected.
“Put your phone down and look at our community,” Napier continued. “We have a great department that is doing phenomenal things. … If you look on your phone it will beat you up because of what’s going on in the world right now.” He emphasized the good things our community is doing and if there are issues the public safety committee can work through them.
Berry emphasized that no one is criticizing the West St. Paul police, but we need to get community input to address these assumptions that result in a difference in how Black and white children view the police.
Police Chief Sturgeon shared a few stories of recent interactions, expressing frustration at being misunderstood. He talked about phone calls he described as “mind boggling” from “uninformed individuals who don’t understand what we do or why we do it.” He said the police force is seeing verbal assaults toward officers on a daily basis. Then he described a recent scene at Walmart where someone being arrested for shoplifting started ripping off their clothes and threatening officers.
“We almost had a mob mentality from customers egging him and officers on while filming,” Sturgeon said. “You don’t see how we do things right on social media.” He reiterated that officers have only fired their guns at people twice in the last 30 years (we detailed these incidents in our recap of the Public Safety Committee meeting).
“If your skin is brown or black, you act differently when a police officer is around. That’s how it is,” Council Member Dick Vitelli said. He talked about having the conversation with his biracial grandson about being safe around the police. “I don’t know how we can fix that.”
“We can try, that’s all we can do,” Council Member Fernandez said. “We’re doing a disservice if we just sit here after what happened and do nothing.”
- Pride flag: In addition to the earlier proclamation for Pride Month, the Council approved a resolution to fly a Pride flag at city hall. It will go up on Tuesday, June 23 and stay up for 10 days.
- Ice arena: There’s an existing plan to expand the ice arena, but the Council is considering a new proposal from the Sibley Area Youth Hockey Association to lease the facility and handle improvements themselves. Council members were receptive to this idea and it will likely come forward in a more official capacity in the future.
- Food truck ordinance: Staff will move ahead with a potential food truck ordinance after getting feedback from City Council. Earlier this spring the City Council considered a food truck ordinance, though pushed the item back until they could discuss it in an OCWS meeting. This time around discussion included removing rules that restrict food trucks from operating within 300 of existing restaurants and restrict locations by zoning.
- Art park: The city has a plan and has received a grant to place a sculpture in the art park at the corner of Butler and Oakdale. The Council previously accepted a grant for the sculpture, though there was some confusion about the project. They asked a few questions and mostly had concerns about the process—that they didn’t see the proposal until after the grant was awarded when it was too late to give any input.
- License adjustment: Businesses that pay license fees are asking for help as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown. The Council is willing to help, though no one wanted to go through multiple rounds of refunds or assistance if restrictions continue in the fall. There’s also a concern about making sure any assistance can be reimbursed with potential state or federal funding that may or may not come. The city will likely inform businesses that help is coming and then work through the details.
- 1010 Dodd: The empty, city-owned lot at the corner of Smith and Dodd came up for discussion again with a proposal to put picnic tables there for restaurants that either aren’t open for dining or aren’t at full capacity. Previously, a community pollinator garden had been proposed for the space. Council Members expressed concerns about pedestrian safety and the shabby look of just adding picnic tables and trash cans to the empty lot. There’s some push and pull between just getting something started and doing something more.
- Council salary: The Charter Commission recommended a 2.75% salary increase for the mayor and council members for the next two years. The current salaries are $9,356 for the mayor and $7,508 for the council members. The raise wouldn’t take effect until after the November election. Council Member Berry was strongly opposed (“Hard pass from me,”) but Council Member Vitelli argued that it’s important to do these small, reasonable raises to keep council compensation in line with inflation. Otherwise future councils are forced to take a much larger pay raise creating difficult optics. “Nobody does this to get rich,” Vitelli said. Charter changes have to pass unanimously and Berry was willing to go along with the majority. This will come before a future Council meeting for an official vote.
- Audit report: Our 2019 financials look good.
City Council meetings are currently 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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