(I’ve posted my thoughts on the 2016 West St. Paul Mayor race here.)
Local elections are usually yawn fests, but this year the race for mayor in the Twin Cities suburb of West St. Paul is heating up. incumbent West St. Paul Mayor John Zanmiller is facing off against former West St. Paul Mayor David Meisinger.
Zanmiller has served as West St. Paul’s major since 2005 and ran unopposed in the last election in 2012. Meisinger served as mayor from 2001-2002. (You can see Zanmiller and Meisinger together in this 2013 photo from a gathering of past West St. Paul mayors.)
The contentious issue in the 2014 West St. Paul mayor race? Robert Street.
The Robert Street Project
There’s a multimillion dollar project in the works to drastically re-envision 2.5 miles of the busiest street in West St. Paul. It’s this issue, and the city’s handling of it, that has prompted Meisinger to run for mayor again.
The Robert Street project is big and expensive. It’s being called the most expensive public works project in the city’s history. The $32 million project hopes to redesign the street, adding a landscaped center median and ultimately improve safety, curb appeal and functionality.
Traffic on Robert Street is already bad and it’s expected to increase from 26,000 cars daily to 35,000. The project will include, state, county and utility (sewer and street light improvements) contributions, making the city’s bill around $16 million. Planning for the project began four years ago with a $7 million federal transportation grant.
But all of that was thrown into question when initial bids came in nearly $8 million higher than expected. The city is expected to reject the bids and go back to the drawing board.
What West St. Paul Mayor Candidates Say
If that doesn’t shake things up enough, there are contradicting statements coming from the candidates. A Star Tribune article quoted all West St. Paul candidates on this issue from a public television candidate forum. (Perhaps a bigger question is why isn’t the Star Tribune or other local journalists fact-checking these statements? Why do I have to do it?)
No Business Support?
“There’s not a single business on Robert Street that supports this plan,” [says Meisinger.]
While there has been push back from local businesses, it’s not true that “not a single business” supports the plan.
Here’s what Zanmiller had to say:
“The developer of the new LA Fitness and the 5-8 Club were on board before they made their decision to invest. … We invited businesses to sit at the table to talk about it. We held many 1-1 meetings with owners as well.“
It’s not clear from Zanmiller’s comments how many businesses on Robert support the project, but at least two new businesses do. It’s also clear that the city has reached out to local businesses and tried to work with them.
No Public Meetings & No Info?
[Meisinger] called political transparency on the issue “non-existent,” since leaders haven’t held a single public forum to gather community input. Residents shouldn’t have to ask for the info, he said, it should be provided to them.
This claim seemed blatantly false, so I asked Meisinger about it. Here’s his response:
“Unfortunately I did not write that article and feel it wasn’t completely accurate as to what was stated at the Forum. Beyond open houses and design meetings, I am accurate in saying that there has been no specific/scheduled public hearing for this project. A public hearing to me is an advertised agenda item that takes place during a televised City Council meeting. This hearing would allow everyone and anyone who wants to speak on this matter, an uninterrupted or unlimited opportunity to speak on the public record. That has not happened yet. In regard to transparency, the City has yet to provide to the public as a whole, what the tax impact ramifications would be for the sale/payback of the bonding needed to fund this project based on what the budget was when they went out for bidding. In my mind, these two items are the most relevant items in regard to this project and they have not happened.”
So were their public meetings about this project?
“We have held about 20+ public meetings, discussions, and listening sessions.“
It’s unclear if those meetings were televised events like Meisinger seems to want, but it is clear that West St. Paul leaders have been gathering input and residents have had the opportunity to learn about the project and voice their concerns.
As for Meisinger’s complaint that residents shouldn’t have to ask for info, it should be provided to them—it is. I’ve noticed multiple issues of the city’s newsletter providing in-depth info on the project. The current issue has an overview, though past issues have gone into more depth.
There’s also an entire website devoted to the project, complete with maps, updates, schedules and more.
Calling the project’s transparency “non-existent” seems like an exaggeration at best.
Meisinger also points to the lack of details on a bonding bill, though I would guess the city was waiting to get final estimates before putting together a bond. And a good thing too, since the estimates came in so high that the whole project is on hold.
It’s fair to say the mayoral contest has come to the single issue of Robert Street.
What happens when a one-issue race becomes a no-issue race? That gets difficult when the whole project is up in the air.
So we’re left to decide our vote based on a few misleading statements about an issue that’s now up in the air?
The West St. Paul Mayor Race Gets Better
But it gets even better as the West St. Paul mayor race heats up on Facebook.
Meisinger posted an update to his Facebok page last week, throwing down on Zanmiller and accusing others of cyber-bullying. The comments, as you can imagine, are the usual mess of public hilarity and harsh judgment.
We Need Better Election Coverage
What this whole mess makes painfully clear is that we need better election coverage. Especially in local elections. I’ve been complaining for years about candidates not having websites (in this case both candidates seem to be relying on Facebook), though this instance has made it clear that candidate info isn’t enough.
It is an improvement that both candidates are online and answering questions (except perhaps for questions from cyber-bullies). I received answers to my questions from both candidates within hours.
But it still needs to be better. I wish we had local election coverage that could seriously question the candidates, push back on their claims and get to the root issues.
Sadly, I suppose that’s politics. It’s the same at the local level as it is at the top.
As for Robert Street, the project is in limbo, but Zanmiller offers us the latest update.
Update: Blocked for Questions
Just when the West. St. Paul mayor race seemed crazy enough, it gets better. David Meisinger now appears to be banning anyone who questions him from his Meisinger for Mayor Facebook page.
I asked him questions. Now I’m banned from his Facebook page. Huh?
I didn’t think asking questions was cyber-bullying or slander or anything of the sort. Asking someone running for public office to clarify their position shouldn’t be out of bounds.
I had asked a couple questions (answers quoted above for a few) and then asked him for clarification when he misconstrued the latest city council meeting. That’s it.
And I’m not the only one.
Meisinger posted a photo of one of his campaign signs graffitied (sad to see someone defacing signs for anyone—not cool) and realized all of this Facebook banning was happening when I tried to comment. Instead I shared the image to a West St. Paul group and other people chimed in that they’ve also been banned. For asking their mayoral candidate questions.
And it’s not the only thread about it. There’s also the passive aggressive dig. Or the question about an implied endorsement, which turns out to be entirely misleading). And best of all—the time Meisinger deleted comments from a current city council member. Ouch.
I feel like an idiot whining about an election in a town of less than 20,000 people. But it seems even crazier for a candidate to be doing this kind of stuff.
Another Update: Questionnaires
The Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce has questionnaires from the candidates. That might help give some additional info.
It’s not clear when these responses were given, but Meisinger is pushing the same misleading lines about no public meetings, transparency and business support that I addressed above.
Interestingly, Zanmiller claims the St. Paul Building Trades endorsement while Meisinger says his endorsement from them is “pending.”
More Updates: Building Trades Endorsement
Here’s some clarity on the Building Trades endorsement:
“The St. Paul Building & Construction Trades Council has endorsed John Zanmiller for West St. Paul Mayor,” says Deb Fehrman, secretary for St. Paul Building Trades.