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West Saint Paul City Council: The Wakota Incident
Guiding Star Wakota (formerly known as the Wakota Life-Care Center) is a charity which provides ultrasounds, childbirth and breastfeeding classes, pregnancy tests, material assistance (diapers, clothes, pack-n-plays, etc.), referrals, and other services to pregnant mothers in need of help.
In late 2019, Wakota sought to construct a new building, due to significant overcrowding in its current building. In order to do this, Wakota needed the City of West Saint Paul to sign off on its site plan and plat, as well as (optionally) a conditional use permit allowing Wakota to provide additional medical services now or in the future.
Wakota worked through its plan carefully with city staff, and ultimately arrived at a plan that (subject to various routine conditions) complied with the city zoning code. As Planning Commissioner Morgan Kavanaugh has noted elsewhere (speaking generally, not about Wakota):
[M]uch of our work is not opinion based. The question before us is often, “Does this meet our code and plans?” If the answer is yes, we should not vote no just because we don’t like the specific use or look of the building.
Non-political city staff, including City Attorney Kori Land, follow this rule. Denying an application that meets all legal requirements is, generally speaking, illegal, and cities that try it are held accountable in court. Applying that standard to Wakota, West Saint Paul's staff and attorney recommended approval of the Wakota site plan and plat.*
The Anti-Wakota Campaign
Nevertheless, when the Wakota permits came before the Planning Commission in January 2020, several members of the public tried to persuade the Commission to reject the permits to which Wakota was legally entitled. The reasons they gave ranged from their objection to the notion that a charity for pregnant mothers would not provide or refer for abortion, to concerns about the size of the building, to the rejection (by some of them) of the science that birth control pills increase some cancer risks. A number of their concerns invoked hypotheticals, or other crisis pregnancy centers entirely unaffiliated with Wakota. This came as a surprise to Wakota, which had expected the Planning Commission meeting to be routine.
The Planning Commission makes non-binding recommendations to the City Council, but is supposed to align its recommendations with the law. After this hearing, the Planning Commission unanimously voted against recommending approval for the site plan and plat,* but for no evident lawful reason.
When the permits came before the City Council, the same members of the public spoke in opposition to the permits, for similar reasons. However, the city staff and city attorney once again recommended approval of the site plan and plat. Meanwhile, clients and supporters of Wakota came out in large numbers to speak in support of the center and its expansion plans. (As City Attorney Land noted during the lengthy public hearing, most of what was discussed--on both sides--was not legally relevant and could not lawfully be considered by the council.)
How Each City Council Candidate Responded
Bob Pace (campaign)
Mr. Pace was on the Council and voted to approve the Wakota permits because they complied with the zoning ordinance and Wakota appeared to be legally entitled to them.
Julie Eastman (campaign)
Ms. Eastman was not on the Council, but spoke at both the Planning Commission and the City Council meeting to oppose the Wakota permits.
At the Council meeting, Eastman stated that the proposed Wakota building was substantially larger than other local buildings, including Sola Salons and the MedExpress building. While true, the relevance was unclear. Eastman further objected to the shared parking agreements Wakota had reached with several neighbors in order to avoid the need for a parking variance, since shared parking agreements can be terminated in the future. (However, the city zoning code permits shared parking agreements as an alternative to seeking a variance.)
Eastman stated "the application has a lot of issues," although she did not identify any problems with the application itself. She raised questions about the threshold where a conditional use permit should be granted under the city code, which are questions I shared (although they were questions for the city, not for Wakota). She objected to the possible loss of city tax revenue if Wakota acquired more lots, since Wakota is a non-profit. She noted that other residents had questioned the integrity and transparency of the organization.
Lastly, Eastman expressed her understanding that medical uses were excluded from a B3 zoning district, so the conditional use permit should be reconsidered. I am no lawyer, but, on this point, Eastman appears to have been mistaken. Medical offices are permitted in Zone B3 with a conditional use permit. See Zoning Ordinance §153.171(A), incorporating §153.156(A), incorporating §153.141(I).
At no point did Ms. Eastman state any reason why, legally, the city would have the authority to deny the plat or site plan, nor did she dispute the application's compliance with the zoning ordinance. She simply asked the city to oppose the permits. For someone apparently versed in city zoning law, this was a surprising omission.
It seems relevant to note that, on October 11th 2020, in a Facebook discussion about controversial anti-abortion signs, Ms. Eastman posted an article entitled "The Long History of the Anti-Abortion Movement's Links to White Supremacy," a factually ill-founded article published by far-left weekly magazine The Nation. Eastman's only comment was "FYI," which gave the appearance that Ms. Eastman agrees with the article's contention that "[D]espite the [pro-life] movement’s careful curation of its public image, racism and xenophobia have been woven into it throughout its history."
Of course, roughly half of American women, including non-white women, identify as pro-life or support substantial abortion restrictions. In considering Ms. Eastman's opposition to the Wakota permits, some voters may consider it relevant that Ms. Eastman is so quick to label Wakota supporters "racists" -- along with many of her other would-be constituents.
Anthony Fernandez (campaign)
Mr. Fernandez was on the Council and voted to approve the Wakota permits because they complied with the zoning ordinance and Wakota appeared to be legally entitled to them.
Robyn Gulley (campaign)
Ms. Gulley was not on the Council and did not participate in the proceedings at the time. I therefore reached out to her to ask whether she was willing to share an opinion on the Wakota affair for this post. She responded:
It was really a zoning issue. I am pro-choice but I don’t think that or any other belief should factor into a decision about a permit.
I will say that it was hard to ignore the comments of the Executive Director about women having “infiltrated the West St. Paul government.” I hope that if this comes up again when I am on the Council that their representatives will be more respectful so the request can be considered on its merits.
Also, whether we agree or disagree, I’m always happy to talk and will be up front about what I think. Thanks for reaching out!
Ms. Gulley here refers to comments made by Mr. Dan Saad, executive director of Guiding Star Wakota, in an internal Wakota memorandum that was apparently inadvertently forwarded to the city. The comments, which do appear unfair and inappropriate, may be read in full on page 19 of this PDF.
Lisa Eng-Sarne (campaign)
Ms. Eng-Sarne was on the Council, and she recused herself, casting no vote. She made the following recusal statement:
“If you were to look at the organizations I’m a member of, donate to, employed by with great conviction, and marched alongside, 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.”
Ms. Eng-Sarne did not suggest any reason why the vote to approve the site plan would or even could fail. It is also unclear to me why Eng-Sarne felt the need to recuse herself from this vote (apparently due to her endorsement by Women Winning, an organization that excludes pro-lifers), while Eng-Sarne voted to retain a prevailing wage ordinance (a key issue for another group that endorsed her, LiUNA!.)
However, Eng-Sarne's recusal had no impact on the overall vote. Because her seat was treated as vacant under parliamentary rules, her absence neither helped nor harmed the Wakota permits, which were ultimately approved by a 3-0 vote.
Dave Meisinger (email)
Mr. Meisinger was not on the Council during the Wakota vote. However, Meisinger made his position clear at the West Saint Paul Candidates' Forum. Because Ms. Eng-Sarne recused herself only and exactly in a case where the law clearly favored abortion opponents (with whom she disagrees), Mr. Meisinger interpreted her recusal as evidence of "intolerance of anyone who does not agree with [her] politics." He specifically objected to what he called "her decision to place her beliefs in front of the City Council and the oath she took to represent the residents of Ward 3."
Meisinger concluded that Eng-Sarne "literally left the residents of Ward 3 with no representation at the table that evening... because she clearly does not understand what the role of a city council member is."
The mayor votes only when the City Council itself is tied. Mayor Napier took no part in the Wakota decision, other than to facilitate fair and open discussion under the rules. I have therefore made no attempt to ascertain his personal views on the matter, nor those of mayoral challenger Kimetha "KaeJae" Johnson.
* NOTE: The conditional use permit was much more of a gray area than the site plan and plat. The Planning Commission voted down the CUP due to a lack of clarity about what Wakota's operations for and confusion about what kinds of buildings qualify for a medical CUP. City staff, hearing the same confusing testimony at the Planning Commission, initially recommended that the City Council deny the CUP, for the same reason. However, after Wakota employees and private attorney Teresa Collett presented arguments at the public hearing suggesting that Wakota was legally entitled to a CUP, the city attorney softened her guidance.
UPDATE: If you are a candidate and wish to comment on this post, email me.