There were welcome calls at Tuesday’s Golden Valley City Council meeting for “facilitative discussion” — including facts and public education about mental illness.
The problem is that the council’s newfound sensitivity came after a three-member majority that included Mayor Shep Harris effectively ran out of town a developer who had planned to turn an aging building into a day-treatment center for school-aged children. The center would have served those who have a range of mental health disorders such as depression, autism, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or trauma caused by abuse.
The developer’s proposed tenant: LifeSpan, a respected Minnesota company that already runs centers in Shoreview and Burnsville. At a Feb. 5 meeting, Harris and Council Members Joanie Clausen and Larry Fonnest voted to deny a conditional-use permit for LifeSpan on a property zoned for mixed-use development, despite a unanimous recommendation for approval by a planning commission. The center would have had kids on site from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays.
Had the officials sought out facts instead of swallowing the unvetted information presented by a small, hysterical group of nearby homeowners, they would not have found themselves belatedly scrambling this week to undo an ignominious chapter in the city’s otherwise proud history. The council voted unanimously on Tuesday to rescind its previous vote. But the Twin Cities developer already had announced it was looking elsewhere.
The hardworking crew at King Pin Transmission would have been happy to help anyone who reached out for information. Owner Curt DeLange has shared a building with LifeSpan’s Shoreview facility for years. “There’s been no problems with LifeSpan. No problems at all,’’ said DeLange, whose father owns the building. He added that the kids are respectful and that there’s never been any vandalism of the vehicles parked outside awaiting repairs or pickup.
As for the Golden Valley homeowners’ contention that the proposed facility was different from the other two because it’s close to nearby homes, DeLange laughed and said: “Stick your neck out the door.’’
A sprawling apartment complex is within easy view, and within a five-minute walk of the Shoreview building is a neighborhood of single-family homes. It’s also worth noting that LifeSpan’s Burnsville facility shares a building with a Grand Slam kids’ recreation facility and that it’s close to a day-care center and the southern suburb’s “Heart of the City” development.
Calls to these two cities’ law enforcement agencies also would have provided context for city leaders to more accurately assess homeowner’s fears that kids “escaping” from the school would do harm.
There have been no home invasions by LifeSpan students, according to the agencies. Nor do records indicate that nearby residents or business owners have been threatened or harmed. Nor are police contacts cited by Golden Valley residents prima facie evidence that someone outside the facilities had been harmed. Law enforcement may have been called to LifeSpan when a child needed to be hospitalized, for example.
Homeowners were also frightened by “emotional breakdown” calls attributed to LifeSpan. However, these calls are among the most common requests law enforcement agencies get in any community because mental illness is so common.
It’s disturbing that an editorial writer was the one presenting this information this week to Harris, who should been informed before he cast his first vote. In an interview, Harris said City Council members deserved credit for apologizing and rescinding the vote. Harris also fretted about the media giving his city a “black eye.”
The reality is that Harris and his two colleagues tarnished the city’s reputation with their lack of leadership and stunning initial insensitivity. They didn’t scrutinize the information presented by opponents at the Feb. 5 hearing. Worse, they allowed residents to equate children in treatment with criminals. Harris, who was in charge, let a homeowner with the loudest voice in the room take control of the hearing and carry the day.
Other communities in Minnesota have poorly handled proposed treatment facilities. The shameful opposition in Orono in 2010 to an eating-disorder program still raises questions about values in that community.
One Golden Valley council supporter pointed out this week that the vote to rescind means his community isn’t another Orono. That’s not saying much, but rescinding the vote is indeed a worthy step. However, Harris and the council also need to personally make sure the project works.
The mayor should quit blaming the controversy on LifeSpan and the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Harris, 41, is a first-term mayor with ambition and potential. Assuming responsibility for this situation and straightening it out with sincerity, goodwill and hard work will only enhance his future, not diminish it.