For a few moments on Monday night, even the most cynical political observers let down their guard as the community of Forest Lake rallied to save a proposed youth mental health care facility that so far had survived Mayor Ben Winnick’s efforts to run it out of town.
Neighbors who live near the project testified passionately at a City Council meeting in support of the facility’s mission. Anguished parents teared up as they spoke of the need for the expert, close-to-home care the project — called Cambia Hills — would provide. Those with economic development interests spoke of the 150 jobs the project would bring, while a major developer who owns nearby property enthusiastically outlined why the facility would draw investors and new businesses.
Rarely does a project have such wide support. Those fighting to push through a minor zoning change to make it happen embody the best of Minnesota values. They responded to a dire need — residential treatment close to the Twin Cities metro area for kids with mental illness — by supporting a thoughtful solution with benefits for the broader community.
Then came the not-in-my-backyard, three-man wrecking crew of Winnick and two other council members — Ed Eigner and Blaine Backes, who was hand-picked a week ago by Winnick from a list of far more qualified candidates to fill a council vacancy. For reasons they struggled to explain when pressed, they voted against the project. That was enough to prevail on the five-member council and send the project, which had twice garnered unanimous Planning Commission support, elsewhere.
Council Members Mara Bain and Sam Husnik merit praise for their outstanding advocacy for the project. Both repeatedly challenged the shaky information on which the majority based its decision. Unlike Winnick, whose statements consisted of disjointed mumbling, Eigner could at least articulate a position. He cited forgone property tax revenue as his main reason for opposing the nonprofit facility. Nonprofits enjoy favorable tax treatment in Minnesota.
But as Bain pointed out, this objection is not listed in the city code’s criteria for evaluating the minor zoning change the project required. That may create legal risk, and it ignores the economic benefits of the 150 jobs the $20 million project would have brought and the additional revenue generated by new development near the facility.
It is just bizarre that Winnick, who kept saying he had questions about the project, did not meet with the care facility’s developers to get answers. His lack of enthusiasm is in marked contrast to his support for a 33-acre junkyard that wants to locate on another site in Forest Lake. This is Winnick’s vision for the city’s future?
It is hard not to conclude that the age-old stigma about mental health care played a role in the trio’s decision despite their assurances that it did not. Minnesotans ought to lament that. In an age marked by school shootings, there’s rare consensus around improving children’s mental health care. Yet when it came time to do this, Forest Lake said no for no good reason, showing just how hard it is to turn good intentions into reality. Other communities in Minnesota, particularly near the metro area, must step up to ensure that kids get the care they need close to home.
What happened in Forest Lake stands in shameful contrast to two fine Minnesota traditions: good governance and communities coming together to solve a problem. This north-suburban city needs new leadership. Winnick is up for re-election this fall, and Forest Lake would be well-served by an experienced, conscientious challenger. Bain’s supporters ought to push her to run. Her willingness to listen to constituents would be a welcome change at the top at City Hall.