Story published: February 22, 2021

Several new city leaders in St. Peter, Minn., appear ready to discuss the possibility of making a statement against racism, in a move that will likely divide elected officials.

City Council member Brad DeVos tried to re-ignite a discussion around the idea at a council workshop last month. He said he’d like the city to send a message that residents of color are seen and supported at City Hall.

“I’m here because, my friends, I am their voice, they’re worried. And as much as I came to city council to talk about solar panels and budgets, I’m here now, and they aren’t,” he said.

He said he was looking to continue a discussion that began last year, but that ultimately did not seem to lead to any progress.

“We’re a bunch of white people arguing over social-justice issues,” he said of the council’s seven members.

If St. Peter, with an estimated population of 12,000, decides to enact a declarative resolution against racism and white supremacy, it could set a model for how small cities and towns in Greater Minnesota could make a statement after the killing of George Floyd.

The topic came up last summer but it didn’t go anywhere. Last month, during a council workshop, DeVos floated an example of a resolution that passed in Salem, Oregon in January. He said he hoped the council could take it up at its next workshop. But the idea faced swift opposition.

“The mayor said ‘absolutely not,’ and was not interested at all in discussing it or didn’t think it was the role of the city,” he said.

Mayor Charles Zieman did not respond to requests for an interview made by phone and through the city administrator. DeVos said it was not the first time Zieman has stated opposition to discussing the topic. The workshop was not recorded, but a few residents also expressed outrage online.

“I couldn’t quote him directly but he definitely voiced that he was not interested in issuing a statement of that kind,” City Council Member Shanon Nowell recalled. In contrast, Nowell, elected in 2019, said language is important. And was disappointed in the Mayor’s reaction.

“He was pretty clear, as were a couple other council members,” she said.

Nowell and DeVos are among four new moderate- to progressive-leaning members on the council. Nowell believes that the town’s silence following George Floyd’s killing is unacceptable and made a public statement against racism on her Facebook page. She said it is important to acknowledge societal inequity.

“I’ve had a great life here. I’ve had a lot of advantages and I know not everyone has that experience,” said Nowell, who works in academic affairs at Gustavus Adolphus College.

But the fact that members of an all-white city council are interested in discussing a resolution marks a shift, said Bukata Hayes, executive director of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council.

“St. Peter is in a position to do a resolution because St. Peter has been doing some work,” he said. “A resolution might not be the first step possible for a smaller community. It’s important to know that in these smaller communities, it starts at different places. So it’s important to look at what can we do,” he added.

He said the death of George Floyd and the video recording of the killing have activated leaders in communities around southern Minnesota who have been awakened to the need to do something in the wake of the tragedy. But he says these moves often challenge existing systems that have upheld a way that is customary for officials and elected bodies to function.

“I think naturally there’s fear that if we do something around equity, someone loses,” Hayes said of opposition that arises around making statements about race.

A resolution would only need three votes to move it to the agenda of a council meeting, and only four of seven to pass. DeVos said it is likely they have the four votes.

Todd Prafke, the city’s administrator for the past 23 years, said it’s not the way St. Peter has traditionally done things. Declarative resolutions are not binding and not enforceable; Prafke said he’d rather see efforts on action rather than enacting a statement.

“I don’t know that declarative resolutions, whether it’s about white supremacy or the use of hand sanitizer, really move the needle anyplace,” the city administrator said.

Instead, Prafke said a list of Items of Vital Importance have served the city well for the past two decades. He said they are regularly reviewed and tweaked to stay relevant. And he said there are already two items that an anti-racism statement could fall under.

“One is treating everyone like a neighbor. And another is having a plan for changing demographics,” he said.

The next council workshop will take place in March.

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“Mementos of civil unrest pepper the walls of buildings and storefronts. Plywood boards still cover broken windows of some shops. Signs reading “George Floyd” and “Black Lives Matter” are spray-painted across Lake Street. A database at the University of St. Thomas has catalogued more than 1,300 similar graffiti and murals in each U.S. state and 76 countries. There are fewer protests, but more tense moments like that traffic stop.” Data Reporter Kyeland Jackson offers this dispatch on the aftermath of George Floyd’s police killing in May 2020.

In One Greater Minnesota Reporter Kaomi Goetz’s first installment about racism issues in Pine Island, she learned about the opposition that Black Lives Matters demonstrators faced in the small town. And in her second installment, she checked in with some residents in the small community who have experienced an awakening on racial justice issues since the police killing of George Floyd.