Our View: Pine Island needed to engage public on ICE proposal

August 24, 2018

At the Pine Island City Council meeting Tuesday night, Mayor Rod Steele said the council’s decision to withdraw from consideration for a possible ICE detention center wasn’t primarily due to public opposition.

Maybe so, but it doesn’t appear that way.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to rescind a resolution of support that it approved in June. That resolution rolled out the welcome mat for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to consider Pine Island for construction of a detention center. ICE put out a call for proposals for possible detention centers to be built near St. Paul, Chicago, Detroit and Salt Lake City. The former Elk Run area in Pine Island was among three sites proposed in Minnesota.

Though city officials pooh-poohed the idea that Pine Island was in the running, they took steps, including the council resolution in June, to let the developer and property owner know they’d welcome it. The June 19 resolution was pretty explicit:

“Whereas: The mayor of the City of Pine Island and the Pine Island City Council have made a commitment to attracting needed employment opportunities for the City and Council; and,

“Whereas: The proposal by Management & Training Corp. and its partners is for a state-of-the-art detention facility with an aesthetically pleasing design that will integrate with and not adversely impact nearby properties; and,

“Whereas: Construction of the project will contribute to the development of essential infrastructure within the Elk Run project area in the City of Pine Island and Olmsted County; and,

“Whereas: The project will result in significant tax revenues in the City of Pine Island immediately and in the future, and” — you get the picture. The resolution calls for the city staff to work “to bring this project to fruition.”

So what changed?

People became aware of it. We and other news media did our jobs to make sure the community knew the city was keenly interested, as was the property owner. We explained what the detention facility would be for, how many detainees it likely would hold, and where it fits into the larger issue of immigration policy in this country.

By the council’s July meeting, opponents were turning out in force, and by this week’s meeting, council members wanted nothing more to do with it — at least for now.

Steele said the decision to rescind was based more on the improbability of the facility receiving funding anytime soon, more than public reaction. “We don’t see any action happening until after the (midterm elections),” he said. “Probably next year is the earliest anything like this could get funded. To subject our town to this negative rhetoric for a number of months is not the right thing.”

That may be true — we’ll see if ICE moves ahead with the other sites proposed in Minnesota and elsewhere. And yes, there likely would be “negative rhetoric” in the meantime, or what’s otherwise called “public debate.”

The city’s reluctance to truly acknowledge and engage in that debate has been part of the problem. At the June meeting, City Administrator David Todd said that public debate was “very premature,” according to the council minutes.

“Should we be selected, there will be ample opportunity for public input, and public hearings,” the minutes say.

So, in other words, the public shouldn’t pay attention until there’s a proposal on the table that’s far down the tracks.

Sorry, but in our view, that’s absurd. If the city thought it was a great idea, as that June resolution says, elected officials and city staff should have been ready to explain and defend that point of view before the lobbyists and other vested interests get suited up.

And we think it’s possible to make that case. We haven’t expressed an opinion on the detention facility itself, but a case certainly can be made for seeking a federal facility in Pine Island that would bring a capital investment of $125 million or more, create jobs and spur further development in the currently dormant Elk Run area.

People in Rochester weren’t crazy about the idea of a federal prison here, 30 years ago, but they came to see it as a benefit and it’s now an important employer and institution. An ICE facility entails more controversy than just public safety issues, but if the city thought it would be a great thing and a game changer, they should have been willing to speak for it and fight for it.

As it stands, there was some murkiness Tuesday about whether this is a short-term tactical move or a permanent change of heart. Steele said, “At this particular time, this isn’t the right thing for Pine Island.”

The wording of the resolution, though, is clear. The council “has reconsidered the merits of the proposed ICE facility project” and withdrawn from the competition. It would be tough for the council and mayor to climb back into the ring after that.

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