West St. Paul Mayor Race: John Zanmiller vs. David Meisinger

(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?

According to Zanmiller:

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.

One-Issue Race

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.

19 thoughts on “West St. Paul Mayor Race: John Zanmiller vs. David Meisinger”

  1. Ug. And this is exactly what I’m talking about.

    Meisinger’s Facebook post: “At tonight’s City Council meeting, it was reaffirmed by the Mayor and Council that the Robert St. project was going to move forward as soon as they found another $8 million tax payer dollars to cover the over budgeted low bid for the work. So instead of reducing the scope of work, which would reduce the price tag back to the original budgeted amount, the Mayor and Council are now willing to spend $40.3 million tax payer dollars to rebuild Robert St.”

    The City’s Facebook update: “The Council clearly indicated its continued commitment to reconstructing Robert Street, yet also realizes that the City’s current financial commitment to this project is significant and additional resources are not readily available to meet the almost $8 million financial gap. … The process for moving forward will include reviewing the current plans to consider changes to the project design and/or scale as well as to consider changes to the construction schedule or methods used.”

    I read that as the city is going to try to find ways to reduce costs to keep the project afloat, not just hunt for more money like Meisinger claims.

  2. Kevin – It’s unfortunate you appear to be a little naïve about how the city goes about funding these projects. If you go back and look at all the major projects that have been undertaken the last few years – the Dome, City Hall, the Sports Complex, and of course, Robert Street – you will find that the actual costs far exceed initial estimates, and with Robert Street, the final cost before the bids came in, was already vastly in excess of the original forecast. So even if they claim to cut costs, they’ll still be way over budget from when the project was first proposed. You can find all of this documented in the Pioneer Press. Make no mistake, the city will go ahead with Robert Street and will take more taxpayer money whether it be in the form of bonds or levy increases. By the way, I don’t see any mention of the levy this year that at first glance seems to be 8% higher than last year – please check this because I could be mistaken – for a city that only broke even with costs and revenue – what happened to all the business supposed to be generated from the Dome? Oddly enough, the mayor personally stopped by my house last Friday and I told him exactly how I felt about the direction the city is taking. I asked him why they spent so much on Harmon Park. He claimed it was because we the residents wanted them to and of course, like the proposed pedestrian bridge on Robert Street, it was for the children. When he said residents asked for Harmon Park, I assumed he was referring to the silly survey the city put out. While it is true that we may want the city to focus on parks – and more importantly, public safety – that does not mean we want them to blow over $5 million dollars buying up more property and completely overhauling one location. Why not use money to fix up the existing parks or hire more police or staff to keep hooligans away and sexually graphic graffiti off the play equipment? The bottom line is the mayor basically blamed everyone but the city for the increased cost of Robert Street and took absolutely no responsibility for what pretty much everyone agrees is a messed up business environment there. He also told me only a few businesses opposed the project. I said only a few? He said “relatively speaking.” And you quote him as referencing just the two new businesses in favor of it? You should ask him how much the city gave those businesses in incentives to open their doors. If he couldn’t cite any long-standing businesses I’d say something is fishy.

  3. Ryan: And perhaps it goes both ways, sure. But I find these direct quotes from Meisinger that are completely misleading to be frustrating.

    The fact is Robert Street needs work and simply repaving it like Meisinger supports doesn’t address any of the congestion or safety issues.

    And it’s not like Zanmiller is just ramming this stuff through. The city council votes on it and approves it. They’ve been working with the community and listening.

  4. Ryan, Kevin
    The Dome did not come in over estimate, nor did the ORIGINAL scope for city hall come in over estimate. City Hall grew in scope as did Robert Street. Combined with the new council members putting hold on those two projects as well as a heating economy causing an inevitable upward pressure on prices of labor and material and it was predicted by several of us involved inthose early stages that the cost would rise.
    This bid was written terribly which also led to and added cost of risk to construction.

  5. Meisinger is against the Rental Ban that Zanmiller and city council instituted which has destroyed my life personally. West St Paul has arbitrarily stolen some people’s inherent and constitutionally protected property rights while arbitrarily allowing others to keep theirs. This is not only not fair and equitable, it is not equal treatment under the law. For that reason and that reason alone he has my vote. For more info just google, “West St Paul Rental Ban” and read up. Winona is being sued for their similar ban by the ACLU and the Institute for Justice and the Supreme Court is currently deciding the case. WSP resident should be ashamed of the petty tyrants at city hall and their draconian heavy handed “ordinances” like the Rental Ban and awful mishandling of the Robert Street fiasco. Meisinger for Mayor all the way!!!

  6. At least he returns my emails…Which is more than can be said for some mayors…

    Do you live in West St Paul? I can assure you there have been plenty of “inconsistencies” with Zanmiller and this city council! The biggest and most egregious being, the Robert St Project being sold as an 11 million dollar project which is now well over 30 million!! How is that for an “inconsistency”? I could go on and on…From the awful Unconstitutional Rental Ban that has literally torn my family apart and arbitrarily stolen some people’s property rights while allowed others to keep theirs, to the quadrupling of my taxes since 2006 (yes quadrupling) to the urban blight and less than model citizens that have overrun my neighborhood in West St Paul, to the garbage filled lots that the city keeps creating by bulldozing the buildings that once houses perfectly functioning successful small businesses, to ignoring the concerns my family friends and neighbors have about pedestrian and cyclist amenities we were promised for the Robert Street project which have gone unfilled, on and on and on…Zanmiller is the most “inconsistent” Mayor I’ve ever lived under and as someone who actually lives in West St Paul I feel it’s time for a change! Meisinger for Mayor!

  7. And that’s your opinion. I talked to Zanmiller and got straight answers. I talked to Meisinger and got banned for asking questions.

    Consider that as you decide how to vote, or don’t. It’s up to you. I’m just sharing my experience as a citizen of West St. Paul trying to research the candidates.

  8. That’s great, and I’ve had just the opposite experience, having been repeatedly ignored by Zanmiller and many others at City Hall over the last 4 years, even though my concerns were always kindly worded and my approach nothing but respectful. I’m just here to share my experience as a citizen of West St Paul, before I am forced to abandon my wife and family yet again and leave town for work without them, due 100% to the Rental Ban in West St Paul. It’s just not right. I of course was still obligated to buy the property, I am obligated to maintain it and of course obligated to pay taxes on it, I just don’t get to maintain any actual rights to it! Thanks to the awful draconian Rental Ban that Zanmiller and the City Council passed with the best of intentions of course. It’s called Neo-Colonial Feudal Serfdom and it’s one of the huge reasons why people left Europe and other places and came to the USA in the first place. I already voted absentee from the West Coast, Meisinger all the way!!

  9. In terms of Robert Street, it’s already an awful run down suburban slum car sewer and hands down one of the most ugly unusable roads in the entire metro area. As a cyclist and pedestrian I avoid it like the plague! It always makes me laugh when I see the cyclist on the Robert Street Improvement website logo though. Pure charlatanism! What are cyclists getting out of this?! But they put the bicycle up there on the logo anyways because it looks good to portray yourselves as “progressive” and all inclusive, but it’s just bull! This redevelopment for tens of millions would help the road some for sure but will do little to change the core nature of the road from the “car only sewer” that it is today but it certainly isn’t worth 30-40 million to just to end up with a marginally improved road in terms of aesthetics and safety but with a greater negative impact on the businesses (in terms of limited access) on the road, the same businesses which will most likely end up paying more in taxes to pay for the project! All for a road that the state itself owns not the city!! I know the federal money will probably go away if the median in nxed but I guess so be it. I say fix the potholes, upgrade the lights and storm sewer where necessary plant some shrubs and if you want to move WSP into the 1990’s paint some bike lanes and sharrows and be done with it. That’s what we’d do on the west coast, even on roads that handle far more traffic than Robert Street. Now that’s truly socially progressive but fiscally conservative and it gets the job done! This could be achieved for a fraction of what they are currently proposing and accomplish far more towards improving Robert Street itself and the perception of West St Paul in general around the metro. But they won’t I know, so it is what it is. Best of luck to you!

  10. I, too, am voting Meisinger over Zanmiller on the single basis that Zanmiller supports and helped implement the Rental Ban in West St. Paul. Not only a Rental Ban, the most restrictive of all the current bans (Winona, Northfield, Mankato, West St. Paul) most strict ban in the entire United States.

  11. Both candidates material lists them as labor endorsed. I am sure they can not both be endorsed by the same group.
    Is it possible to find out who is really endorsed by the labor union?

  12. Confused: Awesome question. Sorry I couldn’t answer it earlier. Not sure if it will still be helpful now, but I’ll try.

    The endorsements are part of the madness. Meisinger was endorsed by the South Metro Firefighters union. Based on that labor endorsement alone, he added “Labor Endorsed” to his signs and materials. Meisinger implied he was endorsed by the St. Paul Building Trades Council, but he never was. Zanmiller has the St. Paul Building Trades Council, as well as the AFL-CIO and some others. I saw the list somewhere, but I can’t dig it up right now.

    So technically, they both have been endorsed by at least one labor union. But Zanmiller has far more union support.

  13. We have lived in WSP for 30+ years and have seen great changes only in the past 5 or 6, mostly due to the things that Zanmiller has helped shepherd through. Meisinger only seemed to be able to tell us what he wouldn’t do, but he never said what he would do if elected. God forbid we should go back to a business district with shoddy buildings and useless auto related businesses. We need a place that invites people to come and spend money every day not whenever they need a new battery or mattress. Robert St is a public safety nightmare, so I’d like to know what Meisinger plans on doing to change that. All he offers is “real world experience”. Anyone over 30 has “real world experience”. As for “Caligula” and the “no rental property”; not sure where that comes from as there are plenty of rental properties in the city. If he/she is referring to the part that allows for only 10% of a block being a rental property, I’m all for it. We had a rental property next door to us that was a 10 year nightmare that adversely affected our property as well. In fact, it affected our whole block. The city and it’s rental property laws were instrumental in getting that property in the hands of a homeowner. I’m familiar with some other city ordinances in a few other states, but certainly not “the entire United States”. However, if it is indeed that restrictive, we have no problem with that. I’ve met Dave Meisinger and I found him distant and unapproachable. First impressions can say a lot about a person, mine was less than impressive. He did not receive my vote.
    Kevin, I just found this blog and I appreciate your insightful comments and your attempt to get to the truth behind the rhetoric. Keep it up!

  14. Lynne,
    What we need to get back to is fiscal responsibility and letting everyone in West St Paul have the same rights! Shouldn’t everyone in WSP have the same rights? Zanmiller could never answer that question and perhaps that is one of the reasons he lost? You cannot trample on or arbitrarily remove some people’s rights, while allowing others to keep theirs. That is not equal protection under the law. I am sure Zanmiller and city council had the best intentions when passing the Rental Ban but we all know the road to hell is paved with such good intentions. No goal, no matter how noble it may be or seem, is worth trampling on people’s rights to achieve. Zanmiller and the city council should’ve been working to protect and defend our rights, not steal them arbitrarily. How is this accomplished? By enforcing the exiting housing and rental codes on the books like virtually every other city in this country does. I live next to several owner occupied homes (not rentals, owner occupied) and they are total dumps and the city does nothing about them. The rentals on my block are well maintained. You cannot scapegoat property owners, tax payers and renters anymore. Enforce the rules evenly for everyone, problem solved. The Rental Ban is unconstitutional and it does not work and it has caused far too much destruction to the lives of honest hard working tax paying citizens in West St Paul. It’s time to repeal the West St Paul Rental Ban, and let everyone get back to being free! Congratulations Mayor Meisinger!

  15. Lynne,
    Sometimes it’s what you don’t do that makes all the difference. Hooray for Meisinger! Fix Robert St and repeal the rental ban!

  16. I am looking forward to seeing what you find this year, Kevin. Any idea how much taxes have “skyrocketed” due to the Robert St project? My family is one of what seems thousands that have enjoyed the new Harmon Park. I have met several homeowners that have purchased in that area specifically for that park. There seems to be real excitement of where WSP could be going in the next couple years.

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