by Dennis Dalman
A motion by the Sartell City Council to move a basketball court in a park of the Wilds neighborhood raised questions of possible racial insensitivity at the June 22 council meeting.
The suggestion to move that court to the city’s Watab Park came after some residents complained of young black males from St. Cloud playing on that court while listening to loud music and using obscene language. At least one resident also said some neighborhood children had been harassed or threatened by the basketball players who began playing ball in that park after the gyms they used to play in were closed due to the virus pandemic.
Council member Mike Chisum vigorously opposed the suggestion to move the basketball court and accused the rest of the council of not including him in any previous discussions about that court or its removal.
According to Chisum, the decision to move the court was made June 22, only about four hours before the June 22 council meeting. He said he knew nothing about it (the “Park Reorginization Project” as it was dubbed) until recently. Chisum, who live in the Celebration neighborhood, drives past that basketball court at least twice a day while commuting to work. He said he has never heard complaints about that park or its court players.
After listening to Chisum, the council decided to table action on the court removal, possibly until the next council meeting. In the meantime, a study can be done about problems at the court and how to address them.
There have been postings on social media that moving the park was motivated by racist attitudes toward the young black players. The first complaints from neighbors came to Sartell City Administrator Anna Gruber in late April.
When the race issue surfaced, a Sartell resident asked Natalie Ringsmuth to call Sartell Mayor Ryan Fitzthum to discuss concerns. Ringsmuth, a St. Cloud resident, formed that organization to foster cultural and racial understanding in the greater St. Cloud area. Fitzthum told the council he explained to Ringsmuth about the tensions rising in The Wilds due to complaints about the players.
The Wilds’ court is located in a park with no night-time court-playing lights and no restroom facilities. One reason to move the park, said advocates, is that Watab Park has those amenities.
Chisum, however, strongly disagreed with the proposed solution of moving the court. He said he received 15 emails about the suggestion of moving that court. Thirteen, he noted, were not in favor of it; two stated the court should be moved. Chisum said it would be foolish and a bad precedent to move a court just because basically one family and a few other people want it moved.
The decision to move the court, Chisum emphasized, had nothing to do with the reasons given: traffic, lack of parking, lack of restrooms, lack of lighting. Chisum said the family that contacted him was concerned about the loud music and foul language and what the family members believed to be threatening or harassing behavior from the basketball players. Chisum told the Sartell Newsleader later that he did encourage that family to contact the police and to make out a report detailing their concerns.
Moving the court, Chisum suggested, would besmirch the reputation of Sartell as a welcoming city.
“Frankly, I think Sartell is better than this,” he said.
Chisum said he talked with the black players, who did admit they played their music quite loud and admitted that now and then they would use cuss words. But he said the young men he talked with were amenable to working on those complaints.
Chisum countered arguments he’s heard in favor of moving the court, including the following: according to Chisum, excuses were made or reasons were exaggerated to have the court moved, such as too much traffic, out-of-town visitors to the park not paying city taxes, charges of harassment when the person or persons who made such complaints did not even call the police and complaints about bad behavior on the court during times when nobody was even on the court.
Council member Jeff Kolb said everybody is welcome at that park or anywhere in Sartell as long as they obey the law and behave themselves. He said that if someone harassed his wife or daughter, he would be very upset. Chisum said he, too, a father of two daughters, would be upset if they were harassed and that he would call the police immediately, which anyone should do if a crime is committed..
Sartell Police Chief Jim Hughes, who was at the June 22 council meeting, said he had not received any harassment complaints from residents of The Wilds, though he added that does not mean there were no such incidents.
That park, said Chisum, is a public park, available for use by anybody, including out-of-towners.
City administrator Gruber also addressed the council. After receiving complaints in late April, she visited the park and talked with the young black basketball players. They admitted they had used foul language and admitted some incidents of urinating because of no bathrooms. When she told them they would be welcome if and when a court is installed at Watab Park with night lights and restrooms, she said they were thrilled.
“It had nothing to do with race,” she told the council.”If we hurt anybody, I deeply, deeply apologize. But that was absolutely not our intent.”
The council then voted unanimously to table the motion, to study the problems and potential solutions and to make a decision possibly at the next council meeting. They also agreed any discussion of the park and court should involve the public.