Monday was a weird, emotional night for the West St. Paul City Council, which saw another chapter in the saga of the Wakota Life Center.
The center provides “services, counseling, and limited medical services regarding alternatives to abortion.” That includes pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and supplies and classes for after the baby is born.
Wakota has big plans, and is looking to expand from an office on Robert Street to a two-story, 9,800-square-foot facility, with accessible parking and better equipment. To that end, Wakota went before the West St. Paul Planning Commission last week seeking approval to redevelop the site, and a conditional use permit to operate as a medical office.
The commission turned them down 6-0. City staff reported there was nothing damning about the site plan, but they didn’t believe Wakota technically qualified as a “medical office,” since only “13 percent”—the part used for ultrasounds—of the office would be dedicated to medical purposes. The clinic has plans to add services, like an onsite doctor and a lactation specialist, and West St. Paul staff recommended it come back and apply for the conditional use permit then.
Dan Saad, Wakota's executive director, had another theory for the rejection, according to a memo he sent to his legal counsel last week. At the meeting, Saad observed, a handful of residents had spoken out against the project and called Wakota a “crisis pregnancy center” that uses false or dubious claims to dissuade clients from seeking abortions.
“Wakota… on their website, advertises false healthcare information,” one resident said. “Such as information about the abortion reversal pill, and that birth control is a carcinogen…. These are not evidence-based standards of care that you would expect if you were walking into a medical clinic.”
In the memo, Saad said this “group of women” who “protested” had effectively swayed the commission to a unanimous vote, ostensibly because of Wakota's stance on abortion.
“It is our understanding that this group of women have infiltrated the West. St. Paul government bodies and we have no interest in coming back to face a biased governing body to seek a CUP (conditional use permit) in the future,” Saad's memo said.
The participation of women in West St. Paul’s government has been the topic of heated debate for a number of years. In 2018, then-Mayor Jenny Halverson dared to call out a few members of her city council for what she saw as sexism. After that meeting, someone dropped a box of tampons on her doorstep.
In response, several women formed their own political engagement group, Women of West St. Paul, and started showing up and participating in meetings. Shortly afterward, five or six of them found their car tires spiked with drywall screws.
A few, but not all, of the speakers at the planning commission were involved in Women of West St. Paul, and the group hasn’t taken a public stance on the issue.
“[Women] are involved in West St. Paul government,” says resident Mary McCauley, who spoke at that meeting. “I think that’s a good thing, but he [Saad] clearly saw it as a bad thing.” A Wakota volunteer/spokesperson declined to comment on the memo.
Police were dispatched to make sure the estimated 300 people at Monday's meeting didn’t get out of hand. Council Member Wendy Berry urged people to “be nice to each other” while they were gathered there. In the end, Berry didn’t vote that night. Nor did her colleagues, John Justen and Lisa Eng-Sarne.
“It had been something I’d been thinking about all weekend,” Berry says. Saad’s memo “rubbed [her] the wrong way,” but it also made her worry how any decision she made that night would be perceived. During her election campaign, she received support from Women Winning and the LGBTQ Victory Fund, both solidly pro-choice groups. She also had a problem with how Wakota communicated with and about women, Saad’s memo included.
“I knew if their attorneys were to look back and see that, they would have questions about my vote,” she says. She didn’t want to put the city at risk for a lawsuit.
Eng-Sarne recused herself because of her previous volunteer work for rape crisis hotlines and other sexual assault resources. “We have a very strict due process we have to follow.”
The public had it out over the course of a lengthy open forum. Supporters brought up Wakota’s many years of service in the community, particularly among clients who didn’t have access to healthcare. Detractors argued that offices like Wakota aren’t held to clinical standards and spread misinformation while patients are vulnerable and panicking. This was peppered among arguments about zoning, parking, and square footage.
Some claimed Wakota supporters were blocking people from entering and saying their piece. McCauley says a few women who spoke against the proposal were followed to their cars and harangued the whole way.
“There was a lot of physical tension going on,” she says.
The council members who did vote went unanimously to grant Wakota its requests, including the conditional use permit, provided Wakota did indeed add more medical services over the course of the remodel. There was “no legal reason,” Berry says, to say no.
Wakota volunteer Sara Tabor says the organization was “pleased” with the outcome, and that Wakota was “firmly committed” to finding common ground on supporting parents-to-be.
There actually is some common ground. McCauley doesn’t really care much about the abortion access issue.The organization’s social work, she says, is “amazing.” Her mother worked there for a time. She disagrees with the council's decision, but her main complaint is Wakota’s clinical standards.
She's also “disappointed” with the way she and other women were treated throughout this process. There was plenty of that sentiment to go around, particularly when it came to Saad’s memo. Before recusing himself, Justen read the document aloud to the assembly and called its implications "baseless and disturbing."
“To say someone has infiltrated the government is to imply that we are not supposed to be there,” Eng-Sarne says. “For those who feel that there are too many women in government, imagine how the last 200 years have felt for women in West St. Paul.”