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Moorhead city council gets it right, but only after unneeded circus

by Mike McFeely

Four Moorhead City Council members who at first did the wrong thing eventually did the right thing. It may have been their consciences, or it may have been recognizing the obvious, but at least they did their best to un-embarrass themselves and do right by people who desperately need somebody looking out for them.

As for the other four city councilors, well, not so much. They are perfectly happy mollifying the loudest, angriest, most numerous voices in the room. They showed what reactionary politics at their worst looks like.

The council voted Monday to rescind a resolution opposing a low-income apartment complex proposed by Churches United for the Homeless. The vote came one week after the same council unanimously and embarrassingly voted to oppose the project, which would provide permanent housing for currently homeless families and some individuals. It is to be located off 34th Street behind Cash Wise.

The original vote led to a public and media outcry that reached some Twin Cities media outlets. "Who'll help the homeless?" asked a headline at Minnesota Public Radio's web site. "Not Moorhead." It was a rough week for a city that had been inching forward in the public-relations arena.

Elmer, a Republican, showed maturity at Monday's meeting by recognizing the council's opposition meant nothing (other than to make its members look like stubborn fools) and that the project was going to move forward regardless. So she made a motion to reconsider the resolution, saying the city should work with Churches United and concerned neighbors to make the project the best it can be.

"We don't have input necessarily on our destination, but we are along for the ride," Elmer said. "And we can either make it a tolerable trip, a successful trip, or we can kick and scream all the way and make it miserable for everybody."

This allowed the three progressives on the council -- Durand, Hendrickson and Dailey -- to vote the way they should've voted in the first place -- in support of a well-planned, much-needed, positive project. Elmer's action provided an escape hatch of sorts for the three, who were taking heat for a vote that should've been a slam-dunk for them in the first place. Durand, in fact, wrote a twisted-logic letter to the editor to The Forum explaining that, no, really, she supported the project even though she voted against it and failed stand up in support of it in either action or words.

Mayor Del Rae Williams deserves special recognition. She unwaveringly supported Churches United and actually provided the tie-breaking vote Monday to rescind the vacuous resolution.

At least some got it right in the end. The same can't be said of Jim Haney, Mike Hullett, Steve Gehrtz and Nancy Otto. Refusing to see their opposition would only continue to cause festering wounds in an already touchy situation, they stubbornly voted to be stubborn.

Haney, in particular, has found a cause he can get behind: Keeping the homeless homeless.

Haney distinguished himself as the biggest and most clueless grandstander of the bunch when at the council meeting last week he proposed the resolution opposing the project. This generated loud applause from residents of the nearby Arbor Park neighborhood, which appeals to Jim's sense of showmanship (he's in a band). This led other council members to meekly wonder if the city could help Churches United find a different location.

Warmed up to the sound of hands clapping for him, Haney delivered this zinger: "To be honest with you, I question whether theres a need for it anyplace."

Apparently in the five weeks since the issue first came on the council's radar, Haney didn't have time to learn that, indeed, there is a need for such a facility. There are about 30 homeless parents in Moorhead and about two dozen of them have school-aged children. It's estimated between 50 and 60 homeless children reside in the city.

Either Haney didn't know the statistics (likely) or doesn't believe society has any obligation toward homeless families and children (just as likely).

When he was running for the council, Haney was asked about Moorhead's homeless. His response: "The best thing we can do is improve the business climate, so they can get jobs." He's all heart and Christianity, that guy.

At Monday's meeting Haney openly questioned the integrity of Churches United by saying he felt the organization was selling Moorhead "a bill of goods."

Hmm, interesting. Churches United is a partnership of 57 area churches with the stated mission of providing "shelter and support in a spiritual setting." The organization started about 25 years ago when local churches saw an unmet need -- shelter for people living on the street -- and did something about it. That would seem to be the definition of Christian values, but apparently Haney sees deviousness in the churches' motives. Seems like Jim worries more about his band than homeless people.

As for the idea of finding another location for the apartments, which some council members and two members of the Clay County commission floated, it doesn't hold water. It sounds good, and it gives the politicians an easy out, but it's not reality.

The application made by Churches United for a $6 million deferred loan was site-specific. The money couldn't be transferred to another location like near the railroad tracks on 1st Ave., or behind Slumberland in Dilworth or the Sea of Tranquility on the moon.

Also, the opportunity for state money is a one-time deal. The application deadline has come and gone. There will be no "next time." Theres no spigot of money from St. Paul to build low-income housing. It was this project or no project.

Haney, Hulett, Gehrtz and Otto might prefer the latter, but this week's action cleaned up the council's mess just enough to shine a ray of light on a good project.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on 790 KFGO-AM. His show can be heard 2-5 p.m. weekdays. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)