Politics trumps proper process in St. Paul

This article was first published in the Star Tribune on May 27, 2021. The published version of this article and reader comments are available on the Star Tribune’s website. View on StarTribune.com

St. Paul has a strong mayor system of governance. But in a high-handed fashion the current mayor has decided, perhaps illegally, that his future campaign is more important than (a) what the law says, (b) what his Planning Commission recommended and (c) what the City Council decided. Neighborhood residents are up in arms.

Mayor Melvin Carter has jammed through approval for a 288-unit apartment complex a stone’s throw north of Interstate 94 on Lexington Parkway. The land is currently owned by the Wilder Foundation, but Wilder, in hopes of profit, has partnered with developer Alatus to build a large number of market-rate rental units.

There is a real threat of gentrification and displacement along University Avenue, including the adjacent Rondo neighborhood. But the up-in-arms neighbors are planning a lawsuit to stop the mayor from having his way (“The kind of project that St. Paul needs,” editorial, May 3).

Why would this mayor, who cites his Rondo roots, reminds us of the effects of displacement, and is an advocate for affordable housing, be so gung-ho about this project? One need look no further than November for the answer – he wants Wilder, developer Alatus and others on board with his re-election campaign.

But how do we tackle the big issues of the day, like public safety, housing and education when we cannot get out of the shadow of politics being more important than process and policy?

As background, Minnesota law (Chapter 462) creates a uniform system all cities must follow when deciding on development. This is not new. Projects are evaluated based on applicable zoning laws and the details of the proposal. In other words, the merits. Not likes and dislikes. And certainly not the politics of elected officials.

In St. Paul, this process involves the Planning Commission making an initial finding with the option of an appeal to the City Council. The council, when it hears such an appeal in a public hearing, does so in a very limited fashion. The council acts with “quasi-judicial authority” and determines whether the commission’s findings were correct.

This is different from the council’s more common”legislative” role, where it can exercise enormous discretion, without threat of legal intervention, to create laws that promote health, safety and welfare.

With the Alatus project, the city circumvented this process in that staff failed to provide accurate written findings supporting the initial denial, followed by a probably unlawful mayoral veto of the council’s vote to follow the commission and deny as well.

At the February Planning Commission meeting, after analyzing law and facts a majority, with seven of the eight votes being people of color, voted no. The denial was based on inconsistencies with the 2040 Comprehensive Plan and noncompliance with building design requirements in the city zoning code.

Yet, when city staff provided written findings of the vote, as part of the council appeal, it stated both consistency and inconsistency with the Comprehensive Plan all in the same breath. By doing so, staff provided a potentially justifiable basis for reversal by the council or a future victory in court. Either of which would be a win for a mayor-supported project.

Then came the veto of the City Council’s decision to affirm the Planning Commission’s denial. While the city charter allows the mayor to cast vetoes, Minnesota Chapter 462 does not allow it in this setting. Only the council is entrusted with the quasi-judicial authority to rule regarding development appeals.

By vetoing the council’s quasi-judicial decision, the mayor has seized absolute power. If he is allowed to do this, the implications are staggering. Want to build a skyscraper on a residential street? Go for it, pal. All that matters is whether the mayor likes your project. He retains ultimate authority with his newfound veto power.

Carter has used the city attorney, whom he hired, to cobble together a flimsy legal opinion to justify all of this. A city attorney, by the way, who should be beholden to all parts of city government including the commission and the council, not just the mayor.

But why care? It’s an election year with token opposition. In recent years, the city has had a history of making poor legal decisions. And yes, there is a need for more housing supply in the city. The proposed Alatus site has been vacant for years.

The answer is that we should care because politics should not trump process and policy. Creating the illusion of engagement and due process is worse than no process at all. We can do better. We need politicians who demonstrate true public service leadership.

Andrew Rorvig, Andy Dawkins and David Greenwood-Sanchez are members of St. Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving open and representative government in St. Paul.