St. Paul City Council holds first in-person meeting in 18 months, hears earful on employee vaccination mandate

Against the chilly backdrop of a windswept Como Lake, the St. Paul City Council gathered at the outdoor Como Pavilion on Wednesday and held its first face-to-face meeting with constituents since March 2020.

Much of the evening was supposed to be dedicated to a public hearing on the mayor’s 2022 city budget proposal, the property tax levy and potential uses for $166 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding.

Instead, most of the hearing was taken up by some employees of St. Paul Parks and Recreation and St. Paul Public Works calling for wage increases and strongly opposing to an employee vaccination mandate still under negotiation between City Hall and the city’s labor unions.

Tabitha Mitchell, Parks and Rec worker, VP w/AFSCME union, says everyday workers lacked testing, PPE, raises and held the frontline in person:

— Frederick Melo, Reporter (@FrederickMelo) October 13, 2021

The Tri-Council, which represents the city’s heavy equipment operators, plow drivers, sewer workers and everyday laborers, has rejected a two-year contract offer calling for a one-time bonus but no salary increase in the first year, followed by a 1.5 percent increase in the second year.

In a brief interview, Council President Amy Brendmoen said the council is still waiting on an update from the mayor’s office about the status of a vaccination mandate that the council had called for August 11.

“By a show of hands, are any of you up here doctors?” said a worker in an orange work vest, addressing the council rhetorically.

City employees on Wednesday said they’ve been told the city administration wants a fully vaccinated workforce by Dec. 1, and the prospect of terminating non-compliant employees came up during a labor management meeting the day before.

Ryan Wagner was among several firefighter-paramedics to take the mic and call for the option of frequent COVID testing rather than mandatory vaccination.

“(For) the individuals who are choosing not to get the COVID vaccine, I would request that this is done in lieu of firing individuals who have given blood, sweat and tears to the city during the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest of the past year,” Wagner said.

Council members held a moment of silence for the victims of a mass shooting last weekend at the Seventh Street Truck Park, where a 27-year-old woman was killed and more than a dozen bar visitors were injured.

A proposal that would open the door to more drop-in daytime facilities for the homeless within the city’s business districts will be revisited in three weeks.

The council, unlike the St. Paul Planning Commission and some other public boards, has for the most part not hosted public hearings through Zoom or accepted live comments through other means since the early days of the pandemic. Until now, other than raze-and-remove orders and other issues where live comment is legally required, they’ve chosen instead to accept written comments on matters before them while council members participate remotely.

Wednesday’s outdoor meeting was in-person only, but the council’s goal is to move toward hybrid in-person/remote meetings this winter, likely by January, Brendmoen said. They tested the technology last week with members of the Downtown Alliance. “We expect to go to hybrid as soon as we are in chambers,” she said.

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