The West St. Paul mayoral and city council races are heating up in 2016 like never before. In my opinion, the campaign comes down to a choice between the penny-pinching approach of the incumbent Mayor David Meisinger and the investment approach of challenger and current City Council Member Jenny Halverson.
I blogged about the West St. Paul mayor race back in 2014 because I was frustrated about the lack of coverage, clear details and accountability. Not much has changed.
Last time around I spoke directly to the candidates, trying to clarify some of the false and misleading statements. I didn’t get very far with that, especially when one of the candidates, current Mayor David Meisinger, blocked me on Facebook when I asked follow-up questions.
So this time around I opted to cut to the chase and look at what each candidate has already said. Many of these statements are snippets from the Dakota County Chamber of Commerce candidate questionnaires. I encourage you to read the full responses there, and watch the public television candidate forum and meet the candidates. You can also get details from official sites for David Meisinger and Jenny Halverson.
This post is my opinion, and you’re welcome to your own opinion, so please educate yourself and vote on November 8.
What’s the biggest challenge facing West St. Paul?
Halverson: “We are currently lacking a comprehensive and unified vision to inform decisions on behalf of our City. To be effective leaders, we must work together to improve the strength and vibrancy of our neighborhoods and grow our tax base with a responsible long-term vision for West St. Paul.” (Candidate Q&A)
Meisinger: “The biggest challenge is serving our residents in the manner they expect while our hands/checkbook are tied because of the Robert St project.” (Candidate Q&A)
See? Vision vs. penny pinching.
How do you balance community needs vs. tax burden?
Halverson: “We should carefully weigh the needs of our community and the corresponding tax burden. We should consider this balance in the short-term as well as the long-term. We should be making smart investments and working with our residents and community partners to find ways to alleviate any resulting tax burden.” (Candidate Q&A)
Meisinger: “Low tax rates are the key to attracting residents and business alike.” (Candidate Q&A)
For Meisinger, it’s simply about low taxes. He doesn’t acknowledge the value of necessary investment. I like Halverson’s balanced approach.
What’s your long-term vision for the community?
Halverson: “It is critical that we have a Mayor who is willing to listen to our residents and work together to create a responsible long-term vision and accompanying policy that will shape West St. Paul now and moving forward. This vision must include increasing the strength and vibrancy of our neighborhoods and the growth of our tax base by: addressing the conditions of our roads, protecting our neighborhood parks and green spaces, and safely connecting these systems with infrastructure that makes our community safer, more walkable, and accessible.” (Candidate Q&A)
Meisinger: “Property tax stability must be the priority. With the instability of the property tax increases over the last few years, residents and businesses alike cannot make sound financial decisions for themselves or their businesses. With no end in site for the cost of the Robert St project due to continued bad soil discovery and unresolved easement acquisition, the city is unable to confirm a final cost. Some of the acquisition hearings with disputed settlement offers, may drag into 2017 by the time they reach a conclusions. Until those are resolved the final cost cannot be established.” (Candidate Q&A)
“To continue to keep West. St. Paul what it was, not change it into something it can’t be.” (Meet the Candidate)
Vision and forward progress, or looking back and complaining?
Do you believe local government leadership is moving the community in the right direction?
Halverson: “Local government leadership is currently divided. We need to work together as officials elected to represent our City and establish a vision for our community that continues to move West St. Paul forward.” (Candidate Q&A)
Meisinger: “Wrong. I believe the massive increase in property tax has set us back. The only thing we had going for us as positive demographic was a low tax rate. That somewhat offset the low per capita income which is what most retail and businesses look at when deciding to locate. They don’t look at how pretty a street is or how many trees are on it, it all comes down to how much disposable income a community has to spend.” (Candidate Q&A)
I think West St. Paul has a lot more going for it than a low tax rate.
What will you bring to the city council that doesn’t currently exist?
Meisinger: “Common sense and respect for the tax payer’s dollars! It exists now but not in the majority needed to make change, hopefully with my reelection and a change at one of the council seats, those changes can and will be made!” (Candidate Q&A)
Hmm… blame and accusations.
Halverson: “As it pertains to the office of Mayor, I will bring effective leadership to the role. It is not about spending more money. It is not about wants versus needs. It is about listening to our residents and addressing our needs in a City with aging infrastructure with a responsible long-term vision that protects and capitalizes on our investments. I will continue my work as a passionate advocate for our residents, continue building upon my many established relationships with our community partners, and continue to find ways we can work together to make West St. Paul thrive.” (Candidate Q&A)
Hmm… more vision.
So how does Meisinger feel about vision, planning and public input?
Here’s his sarcastic Facebook post (August 2016) announcing a new commercial development:
“Would you believe that the council took this action to better our city, as it was elected to do, without spending tax dollars hiring a consultant to tell them what to do, without forming an advisory committee, without defaulting to the opinion of outside groups like the Urban Land Institute or holding open houses.”
Ironic, considering in 2014 he falsely accused the city of not having public meetings on the Robert Street project.
On Robert Street:
Meisinger: “I campaigned on the fact that we don’t need a Cadillac. The Chevy will get us by.” (Star Tribune, 2014)
Which is overstating the case. He campaigned to kill the project. Then he pointlessly vetoed the project (and was overruled by the council). Today he still argues that the state should be paying more for the project, as if anybody disagrees (here’s Meisinger, Halverson and council member Dave Napier trying to get more state money).
Here’s Halverson in a 2013 article (long before the costs ballooned) arguing for trees along Robert Street:
“[Trees must be planted] if our goal is wholesale, positive, monumental change for Robert Street. To me, this is a legacy decision. This is not going to change for 30 to 50 years minimum. … If you are going to do it, do it right. … I think we deserve better, and we can do better.” (Star Tribune, 2013)
That’s investment and vision.
Look, Robert Street was an enormous project. As the main commercial artery in West St. Paul, the road was not only in bad physical shape, but it was incredibly unsafe and congested. It not only needed to be repaved, but serious thought needed to go into addressing the safety and congestion issues. There were also numerous sewer and utility upgrades that needed to be made.
This was not a simple repave. Major work needed to be done, and there was no putting it off or getting around it. Halverson worked to get the project done and make it an asset to the city. Meisinger just complained about it.
On Harmon Park:
Halverson: “We listened and heard that this was a priority amongst our residents and rejected plans for a new City Hall that did not fulfill our needs in order to instead complete this community project. Together with our Council, we lobbied to advance the plans for renewal of the park. I fought for the large splash pad, park play areas and park buildings that will benefit families in our community. Harmon Park is a shining example of how renovated parks and conservation of our public spaces can reinvigorate our neighborhoods and create a renewed atmosphere within our city. … Smart planning sourced from a unified vision and a policy creating long-term growth of our tax base will allow us to create more of these important spaces that are vital the strength, resiliency and vibrancy of West St. Paul.” (Jenny4WSP.com)
While quick to criticize every other city expense, Meisinger has made few public comments critical of the Harmon Park construction project. Perhaps because his father’s construction company, where he works, did the project. Though he seemed to be against the project in his 2014 campaign, alluding to it as an example of out-of-control spending.
Today Harmon Park is a jewel in the city, a major regional attraction.
Working With the Community:
Halverson: When I had questions and concerns with the sewer inflow/infiltration project, Jenny Halverson jumped in to answer my questions, tracking down the things she didn’t know.
Meisinger: He blocked me on Facebook when I asked follow-up questions about his campaign in 2014.
He’s also combative and short tempered: “Just sit there and be quiet,” is what Meisinger said in a heated exchange with council member Dick Vitelli (watch the clip here, or go to about 1:28:50 into the August 22, 2016 city council meeting).
Meisinger also has a history of false or misleading statements.
One nice thing I will say about Meisinger: In 2015, he posted a politically-charged meme pitting Syrian refugees against homeless veterans that received plenty of criticism. I challenged him to actually support homeless veterans and pointed to a fundraiser a friend of mine was doing, and Meisinger did come through with a generous donation. So hats off to him for that.
Conclusion on the West St. Paul Mayor Race
You may be noticing a trend. Jenny Halverson is continually working to invest in West St. Paul and develop a long-term vision. David Meisinger wants to cut corners anywhere he can (including investing in city employees). But Jenny Halverson understands that sometimes the least expensive option is not always a good value. Sometimes you have to invest, even if it costs more (as she argued in the water tower debate).
If you want vision and investment in West St. Paul, vote for Jenny Halverson.
If you just want penny pinching, vote for David Meisinger.
Right now I see a city that’s moving forward. West St. Paul has a lot of great things happening, from the beautiful Harmon Park to a smooth and inviting Robert Street.
But let’s be clear about who should get the credit: Jenny Halverson worked to make those successful projects happen. Dave Meisinger complained about them and tried to shut them down.
(For more on local elections, read my commentary on the West St. Paul city council ward 3 election.)
Update: Smith & Dodd (Oct. 17, 2016)
The Stubbornly Local blog asked the West St. Paul mayoral candidates about another upcoming road construction project: Smith and Dodd road in the northwestern corner of the city.
Jenny Halverson: “West St. Paul should use this opportunity to study the feasibility of incorporating the pedestrian/multimodal safety enhancements provided in the comprehensive plan. This plan should continue to be updated and vetted by our residents and business owners to ensure that the implementation of it makes sense for West St. Paul. Improving walkability and making West St. Paul more bike-friendly will make our City safer and more attractive to current and potential residents and businesses.”
Smart, forward-thinking vision and investment.
David Meisinger: [no response]
Update: Robert Street Easement (Oct. 24, 2016)
In September, Meisinger vetoed a Robert Street easement settlement and boasted about it on Facebook, claiming he saved the city $30,000. Unfortunately, it’s not such a simple story and his Facebook post is ethically questionable since he went public with confidential information. It’s kind of a convoluted story, so I dug into it in a separate post: Robert Street Easement Settlement Gone Awry.
Update: Facebook Page Down (Nov. 7, 2016)
If you’re looking for information on David Meisinger you might notice his Facebook page is gone. It appears to have gone down last night, Sunday, Nov. 6, and as of this morning is still gone. Since the beginning I’ve been frustrated by a lack of information on local candidates, so this is a distressing development.
This post might have something to do with it. An anonymous West St. Paul Facebook page that has attacked Meisinger in the past posted a screenshot of his personal Facebook page, showing he is a member of two Facebook groups that share images of scantily clad women.
There’s plenty of debate in another Facebook neighborhood group, giving the range of potential responses: It’s legit, it’s fake, skepticism, who cares?, etc.
It’s clear I’m not a fan of Meisinger, but I’m not a fan of these kind of attacks either. We have plenty to debate with the issues.
If you’re looking for more information on Meisinger, you can check out any of these:
- Dakota County Chamber of Commerce candidate questionnaires.
- Public television candidate forum.
- Pioneer Press candidate questionnaires.
- Lillie News candidate profiles.
Update: Facebook Is Back (Nov. 8, 2016)
David Meisinger’s Facebook page is now live again on election day.