Women filling the West St. Paul City Council chamber

Women Confront West St. Paul City Council

Last night’s West St. Paul city council meeting was incredible. Women came out in droves and packed the city council chambers—bearing tampons—to protest sexism.

More than 150 residents showed up (is that a record for a West St. Paul city council meeting?) and citizen comments went on for an hour and a half as women berated the sitting council members, detailing stories of harassment, mistreatment and—at best—neglect.

The tensions spilled over after the overt sexism on display at the previous city council meeting on April 23, but as Mayor Jenny Halverson testified (and former council member Darlene Lewis, who served from 2005 to 2012, confirmed), sexism has been an ongoing problem.

The tampons were part of a Pad Drive where feminine hygiene products were donated to a local food shelf (and over $2,600 was raised online), after the mayor and another citizen were harassed.

Many of the woman dressed in green and wore buttons quoting Mayor Halverson, “This will not be forgotten, folks!”

The Women Speak

The citizen comments started at about 14 minutes into the meeting (with comments from Mayor Halverson before that) and continued for an hour and a half. It’s worth watching.

I couldn’t quote everybody or capture everything they said, but I tried to give a sampling of the many voices who spoke (apologies for any errors in my transcription).

A Controlled Burn

“Council person Fernandez stated in his FOX9 interview that the last council meeting was ‘a small political brushfire that turned into the city burning down.’ But I’m here to say he could not have been more wrong. This metaphor intimates that what happened at the last council meeting was a minor incident that got out of control and was blown out of proportion. No, Mr. Fernandez, the city was not burning down. … The city is not burning down because that infers chaos. There is indeed a fire that has been set, but let’s be clear: This is what’s referred to as a controlled burn. The kind that wildlife conservationist set when weeds or old, unhealthy growth threatens the landscape. … We are here to lay bare why this controlled burn is so desparately needed. We wear green today because we believe in a verdant, diverse and thriving West St. Paul. Happy spring.” -Kali Freeman

Democracy is Transparent

“This is not what democracy looks like. We should be doing this together. I do not want to sit down with you off the record. I want you to solve community issues in front of the community.” -Katie Dohman

Silencing Critics

“It’s stunning to me to witness the actions of some of you against those who openly criticize you. You are elected officials—people are not going to like you and say things you don’t like. That’s politics. It’s disturbing to see that instead of rolling with the punches or try to engage with those people, a number of you will go to any length to intimidate and silence your objectors.” -Chris Gevara

Not Qualified to Qualified

“As for the special meeting that was called, it’s amazing how one can go from not qualified enough to so qualified that a special meeting is called in her honor.” -Samantha Green

Ready for Change

“Now is the time to step forward. I hope to see more people stepping forward—more women, more people of color, and more people who don’t feel like they’ve been fairly represented. Run for city council, run for mayor, keep applying for these committees, keep showing up to these meetings—we can’t stop coming to these. And now is the time for all of us to do something. Council member Fernandez told FOX9 News that this was a small political brushfire, but he’s wrong. It’s not about him, it’s not about politics. There is a fire, but it has to do with us. It started when we voted Mayor Halverson into office, and we just passed the bond referendum, and we’ve packed this room—there are no chairs, this is awesome!—and we need to keep doing this because we’re ready for change. We will not be intimidated, we will not be shamed for speaking the truth, we will not be silenced, and ‘this will not be forgotten, folks.'” -Wendy Berry

Father of Daughters

“One council member made the comment that as the father of daughters, he is somehow precluded from engaging in sexism. Sexism has been around for a long, long time. Being a father to daughters, a brother to sisters, being an uncle to nieces, having a woman for a mother—none of these roles exempt a male from engaging in sexism or having a sexist attitude. If it did, sexism would obviously not exist and not continue to exist into the year 2018. ” -Laura Zanmiller

Fill the Committees

“Council member Pace… you called me, you said you wanted to get these committees filled—then quit voting no!” -Karen Vavreck

A Higher Level of Scrutiny

“As pubic servants, I expect a higher level of professionalism from you than I do from private citizens. … You are in a position of power. You are in public office. You are our elected representatives, and that role  subjects you to a higher level of public scrutiny. Laws regarding defamation are fundamentally different for public citizens rather than private citizens, and this is intentionally done so. If you cannot accept that by being a public citizen you are open to a higher level of criticism, then you may want to consider your position and maybe go back to the private sector. … A citizen should not have to worry that they are blacklisting themselves by voicing their concerns about the council.” -Jade Pennig

Have My Husband Speak?

“I reached out to councilman Fernandez about an issue about a year ago and never heard back. My husband reached out to him about the exact same issue. Not only did councilman Fernandez respond in seven minutes to my husband’s email, he immediately offered to meet with him for coffee the next day. I never heard back from councilman Fernandez until my husband mentioned that I had reached out about the exact same issue. … I shouldn’t have to—in 2018—have my husband speak on my behalf to get my elected official to respond. If you are wondering why the women of West St. Paul feel marginalized and disrespected, it’s because we have been, over and over again. … If you cannot respond to the members of this community, you should not be a member of this council.” -Kelly Billig

We Will Not Be Quiet

“For many centuries women have been told to be good and sweet and quiet. Just like old fashioned children at the dinner table, we should be seen but not heard.  Almost one hundred years ago women did not win the right to vote by being polite and quiet. They spoke the truth. My grandmother marched for suffrage, and I can tell you, she was not polite and quiet about it. We must remember that the patriarchy is always, always threatened by women who speak their truth. Today, in the 21st century, we do not intend to be kept out of politics—or any profession for that matter—by anyone who deems our speech as inappropriate. I am sure that when Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, many, many people deemed her actions as extremely inappropriate. We do not intend to ever, ever go to the back of the bus.” -Julie Goldstein

Implicit Bias

“I want to say a little bit about implicit bias, which maybe some of you have heard of and maybe some haven’t. It really speaks to the fact that the way we treat men and women, and also people of color and other differences among people, are so internally held that we often don’t even realize it ourselves. … I bring this up because when you’re trying to compare how qualified people are for committees and you’re looking at resumes, it can be really hard to remove that and even know that you’re doing it. I think a lot of times when there’s racism and sexism, it’s so ingrained in us and we can even do it as women to each other. So I’m not trying to let anyone off the hook, but I’m also saying it’s good to do some self examining and maybe get some training on implicit bias and diversity and inclusion. … We need to go beyond that, and instead of just saying is everyone equally represented, but to say how can we really include people and proactively bring them in. … How can we be proactively recruiting people who are diverse to participate in the community?”-Megan McGuire

Stop It

“I just want to let people know that the ratio of retired or older citizens is probably about five women to every man. And we all vote. And a lot of us are angry. … I’m a retired English teacher, who moved from Mora, Minnesota, to the ‘big city’ to be close to my daughter and I really like it. I’ve been here two and a half ears and I saw that on TV and I went ‘What?’ This is so wrong. You have this articulate woman and you’re bullying her. Stop it.” -Deb Swenson

The Behavior Hasn’t Changed

“Not everyone here knows, but I was the fourth woman and I served two four-year terms. … I just wanted to say I’m so proud of these women, and I want to ask where were they when I was on the council? I was the only woman for two terms. I think I’ve shared some of the things with you Mayor Halverson about what to expect, the previous woman before me was Vivian Hart. I do remember someone told me that Vivian was also a victim of the council—it was a different council. But the behavior has not changed. So I want to thank all of you for stepping forward here and we’re going to keep this momentum going, like it says, ‘This will not be forgotten.'” -Darlene Lewis

Move Forward Together

“I thought my generation of women was the last to have to endure this. Sadly, both nationally and locally, I stand corrected. …  Decency demands that we engage now with remedial action for this to be a city we can continue to be proud to live in. … I remain deeply appreciative of all those who serve in the positions you do—police and anyone willing to put themselves forward as a volunteer or any other capacity. Folks sitting where you sit don’t deserve disrespect or name calling. Folks sitting where I am tonight don’t deserve it either. None of us deserve that. Hopefully, hopefully, we’ve moved through our group trauma and had a little catharsis and can take what education we’ve been given by our neighbors and friends and move forward. Sadly I haven’t bothered to get involved here, because frankly until now it’s been OK—but obviously it hasn’t been. So I will continue to watch the progress on this matter. And I will continue to call on us all to raise the bar, for ourselves and for our city. Unless we’re all going to move out—and I have no intention of doing so—we need to find a way to respectfully and without self-righteousness on anyone’s part—on anyone’s part—move forward together.” -Susan Pavlak

Resign

“Yesterday I posted on West St. Paul Neighbors a song about West St. Paul, it’s about all the great things in this community. I’ve lived here my entire life and loved every part of it. I think to make West St. Paul just a little bit greater, Mr. Pace, Mr. Fernandez—who is conveniently not here, Mr. Iago and Mr. Bellows, I think you should resign.” -Skye Raney

The [Council] Men Respond

When the citizen comments finally ended, the council members had a chance to speak:

  • Bob Pace spoke first and did not acknowledge the capacity crowd or anything they had said. He simply spoke about the upcoming events for West St. Paul Days, drawing gasps from the crowd. He didn’t explain his silence during the April 23 meeting, his rationale for voting against the mayor’s appointment, or explain why as a representative of Ward 1 he saw no need to have Ward 1 representation on the Planning Commission—all questions raised during the citizen comments.
  • Ed Iago thanked everyone for showing up and welcomed the criticism, though the only apologetic note he struck was surprise about a resident’s comment that they feared speaking up on controversial issues for fear of reprisal over mundane zoning or ordinance issues. Iago did say if that atmosphere exists, it needs to change.
  • John Bellows did apologize—but not to Mayor Halverson or any of the women who spoke. He apologized to resident Jay DeLaRosby for telling him to “shut up” at the previous meeting. Bellows went on to explain sexism to the gathered women and insist that his actions had not been sexist, while calling out specific women in the audience.
  • Anthony Fernandez was not present for the meeting.
  • Both Dave Napier and Dick Vitelli had voted in favor of Mayor Halverson’s appointment and defended her during the April 23 meeting. Both expressed their thanks to the crowd.

Additional Notes

Thank you to Mayor Halverson for her service and courage, and thanks to the many women who helped organize this outpouring of civic engagement and support.

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