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While the regular West St. Paul City Council meeting had no new or old business on the agenda, the Council still covered a lot with a two-hour Open Council Work Session (OCWS) and a nearly one-hour Economic Development Authority (EDA) workshop. Topics included policing, the committee appointment process, and sale of land for townhomes.
Committee Appointment Process
After a confusing committee appointment process at the January 25 OCWS, Council discussed how to remedy the situation. They’re considering long-term options to revamp the process with ideas proposed including interviews, term limits, ward-based appointments, and more. To address the immediate concern of an improper vote, the Council is considering adding seats to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee and the Environmental Committee, both to reappoint the incumbents who weren’t reappointed and in response to the increased community interest in serving on committees.
Adding seats requires an ordinance or resolution, so that will come forward at the next meeting. The discussion about how to revamp the process will be ongoing.
Two citizen comments inquired about issues with the West St. Paul police force, prompting Police Chief Brian Sturgeon to spend more than 20 minutes addressing the concerns.
The first issue dealt with a Black resident who had been sitting in her car at the West St. Paul Sports Complex drinking coffee when someone called the police to report suspicious behavior. Feeling profiled, the Black resident complained about the “See something, say something” advice that can lead to these incidents.
Sturgeon defended “See something, say something,” arguing that the police will sort out what is legitimate and what is not. In this particular case, the police were not dispatched to investigate.
On Saturday, the Residents of Color Collective (ROCC) organized a “Moment to Myself” rally at the Sports Complex to protest the profiling. More than 30 people showed up for the event to sit in their cars and raise awareness about the harassment. Council Members Julie Eastman and Lisa Eng-Sarne both attended and spoke in support of the event.
The second issue dealt with questions about the diversity of the police force and Sturgeon spend the bulk of his time talking about the challenge of recruiting people of color. The West St. Paul Police Department currently has four officers of color, amounting to 12% of the total officers (compared to 25% and 27% in Minneapolis and St. Paul respectively). Though as a small department, West St. Paul is definitely not alone in struggling with diversity.
Sturgeon said this is a national, state, and local issue. He outlined some of the specific challenges and a number of ways the department tries to address them. We’ve talked with Sturgeon before about diversity and the challenges of recruitment. The topic also came up at last summer’s Public Safety Committee meeting about police use of force.
Sturgeon said he is open to ideas and talked about partnering with ROCC to increase diversity.
Townhome Property Sale
The EDA had a lengthy discussion during their workshop to consider a purchase offer for land off Crawford Drive to build 16 townhomes. The $5 million project would finish the existing townhome development on Crawford, but the $320,000 offer faced criticism from several council members for being too low. Several argued that the completion of the trail and Hy-Vee would surely increase the value. The city stands to make $75,000 profit from the sale.
The developer, Centra Homes, argued that finishing the townhome development required completing the private road, fixing curbs and retaining walls, and adding landscaping—changes that will add $200,000 to the development cost. Additionally, 16 townhomes is a small project and the city’s Community Development Director Jim Hartshorn noted that he pitched the project to seven companies and only received one bid.
Ultimately the Council came around to the idea of selling now rather than gambling on a better deal in the future. The project will come back for official approval and likely start construction this year.
Other Items on the Agenda:
- Proclamations: West St. Paul proclaimed February as Black History Month. “We can’t say all lives matter until we show that black lives matter,” said Council Member Wendy Berry.
- Residential signs: The Council discussed the residential sign ordinance at the January 11 meeting and tonight a proposal came forward to potentially double the allowable square footage of signs. The current ordinance limits residential properties to one yard sign that is no larger than six square feet. The Council had no appetite to change the ordinance during the OCWS conversation. Council Member Berry expressed frustration that the ordinance is not being enforced consistently.
- Renaissance Plan: The Renaissance Plan came up after a discussion at the January 11 meeting. The Council wants to make planning documents and city code more consistent and will look to implement more changes in a future meeting.
- Housing rehab: The city launched a housing rehab loan program last year that didn’t actually grant any loans. The EDA wants to expand the program for this year, making $5,000 low-interest loans available to any homes north of Butler.
- Water: Saint Paul Regional Water Services (SPRWS) is upgrading the McCarrons water treatment facility—where West St. Paul gets its water. The upside? More reliable and better quality water. The downside? Expect a 25% increase in the water usage portion of your SPRWS bill by 2024 (a $6.61 increase for the average customer).
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