April 10, 2023 West St. Paul City Council meeting

West St. Paul City Council Recap: April 10, 2023

Thanks to Cardinal Corner, Jameson’s Irish Bar, and Minnesota Locks for their support.

A Planning Commission appointment sparked conflict during the West St. Paul City Council meeting. The Council also debated relaxing the city’s sign ordinance to potentially allow murals and approved a resolution supporting No Mow May.

Heated Planning Commission Appointment

What happened: Mayor Dave Napier appointed Nathan Gallus of Ward 2 to Planning Commission to fill a vacancy and maintain relative ward balance. Council members raised concerns over the fact that Gallus serves on the board of the nonprofit Guiding Star Wakota (a crisis pregnancy center in West St. Paul), that the position was not disclosed, and concerns over transparency in the process.

The process: Unlike other committees, city charter ordinances give the mayor the power to appoint Planning Commission members and tasks City Council with confirming those appointments. There is no process stipulated in the charter city code for how the mayor selects appointees.

The issues:

  • Conflict of interest: In response to concerns about potential conflict of interest, City Manager Nate Burkett noted that Gallus signed a letter stating he would recuse himself in any business related to Guiding Star Wakota while he serves on the board. Several Council members said this addressed their concerns and they were willing to approve the nomination.
  • Disclosure: Council Member Robyn Gulley raised concerns about the lack of disclosure. She wanted changes to the application to ask about potential conflicts of interest. Napier agreed that this would be a good improvement. Though he did argue that Planning Commission members are trained on conflict of interest and any member would recuse themselves if there were a conflict.
  • Political sparks: Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne spoke strongly against the appointment: “We are absolutely in unprecedented times when it comes to women’s rights and the reproductive rights of anyone with the capacity for pregnancy. The applicant sits on the board of Guiding Star Wakota, the organization that put in writing that they were concerned about women infiltrating government and that they had no interest in coming back here until the boards looked more like them. … I’m going to be voting no on Nathan, some constituents are going to be disappointed in me, and I 100% accept that.”
  • Polarizing: Gulley ultimately abstained from the vote, explaining the move and asking for community input in a post on Facebook: “I felt the Mayor was injecting a polarizing political issue (one on which we obviously do not agree) into local politics. I abstained from the vote, but have complicated feelings about it.”

The vote: Council Member Pat Armon grudgingly made the motion to approve, with Council Member Wendy Berry seconding the motion with the same concern. Council voted 4 to 1 to approve the appointment, with Eng-Sarne voting no and Gulley abstaining.

History: Planning Commission appointments have had a contentious history.

  • 2015: Council rejected Mayor David Meisinger’s appointment of John Ramsay on a 4-2 vote (Napier and Armon, then on Council, were among those who voted no). Later in the same year, Council unanimously approved a reappointment of Ramsay, apparently deciding to honor the mayor’s appointment power.
  • 2018: Council rejected Mayor Jenny Halverson’s appointment of Samantha Green on a 4-2 vote (Napier, then on Council, was among those who voted yes) in an alleged sexism controversy. A month later, Council approved Green’s appointment on a 5-0 vote (with Council Member John Bellows abstaining).
  • 2021: Council approved Mayor Napier’s appointment of Liz Gillen on a 5-1 vote, but included in the motion a measure to expand the Planning Commission to nine members to allow for ward balance. Napier vetoed the measure. Council overturned it, approving Gillen and going on to expand the Planning Commisson.

Sign Ordinance Changes

During the Open Council Work Session, Council considered a series of proposed changes to relax the city’s sign ordinance. The measures include:

  • Yard signs: Changing temporary yard sign restrictions from limiting the number of signs to a limit on the total square footage of all signs. Staff is suggesting a maximum of 10 square feet.
  • Fences: Allowing signs or banners to be affixed to fences (but not painted on fences) as long as it faces the right of way. These signs will still fall under the maximum square footage rule.
  • Murals: Allowing non-commercial murals. They would consider a size limit, potentially 20% of the wall. Council Member John Justen recommended 25% of total building wall space, not just one wall to allow for larger murals as opposed to multiple small ones. They can’t limit murals to a specific zoning district due to First Amendment issues.

Mayor Napier expressed concern and wanted to leave things alone. He recognized the Council likely disagreed with him, and he advised making changes slowly.

“As someone who is targeted by signs often, I’m not concerned about this,” said Berry, “It’s just an opportunity to explain how other people have different points of view.”

Eng-Sarne noted that this conversation started three years ago and is moving very slow already. She also suggested education to help residents understand what the sign ordinance says.

This is a preliminary conversation and actual ordinance changes will come in a future meeting.

Now Mow May

Council approved a resolution supporting No Mow May for the third year, an effort to allow grass to grow for a month to protect pollinator habitat.

“More and more cities keep doing it, and we’re always mentioned as one of the cities that started it,” Berry said.

The city will have yard signs available so residents can let their neighbors know they are participating.

“I do want to acknowledge that this bothers a lot of people,” Berry said. “I get it. I’m sorry for that, but this is a good thing, it’s an environmentally conscious thing, and it’s only going to last a month. … So thank you for your patience during the month of May.”

Other Items on the Agenda

  • 2023 road projects: Assessments for 2023 road construction were approved during a public hearing. These are mill and overlay projects on a few different streets. Work will begin in a few weeks and should finish up this summer.
  • Parks: Improvements to Marthaler Park that were put off in previous years moved forward as Council approved the contractor and work will begin later this year. Gulley and Eng-Sarne advocated for more accessible playgrounds. Berry noted that the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee is working hard on that issue.
  • Exterior grant: The Economic Development Authority (EDA) approved a $10,000 exterior improvement grant for the Lehner Law Office building at 816 Dodd Road. They’re planning $20,000 in improvements, including windows, trim, fascia, lighting, and more. Work will start in the next few months and should be finished by late summer.
  • Strategic planning: Council reviewed the initiatives that came out of the recent strategic planning session during the OCWS.
  • Fair Housing: Council proclaimed April to be Fair Housing Month.

You can watch the City CouncilOCWS, and EDA meetings online. You can also watch a video recap with Ward 2 Council Members Robyn Gulley and John Justen.

Learn more about how City Council works with our Guide to West St. Paul City Council.

Thanks to our members for enabling us to do these City Council recaps. Join them and support neighborhood news in West St. Paul.

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