The West St. Paul City Council meeting on April 23, 2018 was a curious descent into misogyny and sexism. It can be a little hard to follow city council meetings if you’re not aware of the entire history and context. Sometimes it seems our elected officials rely on that fact. You can always watch the video yourself (11:51 in the council video), but I’m going to try to clarify some of what happened.
Here’s the short version: Mayor Jenny Halverson appointed three people to fill vacancies on the Planning Commission. City council has to approve those appointments. In the past, mayoral appointments have mostly been honored, though that hasn’t been the case for Mayor Halverson. Two of Halverson’s appointments were confirmed, and a third was rejected. Two of the council members who voted ‘no,’ (Ed Iago and John Bellows), argued back in 2015 that mayoral appointments need to be honored.
That honor seems to have disappeared in 2018, during the term of West St. Paul’s first ever female mayor, while considering female appointments.
So let’s look at what happened in more detail.
The Planning Commission is composed of
eight seven members and there are currently three openings. The mayor has the power to appoint members to the commission and the council approves those appointments. All five four current members of the commission are men.
Halverson appointed three people to the Planning Commission:
- Maria Franzmeier
- Samantha Green
- Lisa Stevens
The appointments of Franzmeier and Stevens were approved unanimously with no debate.
However Green’s appointment was debated on multiple (and at times shifting) grounds:
1. No Appointments Based on Gender
First, Bellows accuses Halverson of making her appointments based on gender. Bellows argues that he’s not being sexist because, “As the father of daughters, I’m not going to take a back seat to anyone in terms of the importance of women being involved with the city.” (He’s advocating for relational empathy—I empathize because I’m related to women, as opposed to empathizing because someone is human.)
Halverson denies the charge; she argues they were all well-qualified candidates and that’s why she chose them.
Halverson did applaud the fact that there were actually women to consider. That hasn’t always been the case. Halverson argues that if they’re qualified, then let’s appoint them.
It’s interesting to note that Bellows makes this argument against gendered appointments after he votes in favor of Franzmeier (a woman). So he’s concerned about gender-based appointments, but only for certain women.
2. The Candidates Are Not Qualified
Bellows, after already voting in favor of one of the candidates, argues that all three are not qualified: “I think the rationale that was given is insufficient when you consider that the three applicants she’s put forward don’t have any significant background in planning, as near as I can tell, at least in design planning—and it’s not interior design.”
Bellows makes this “near as I can tell” judgement apparently based on the candidates’ applications, which include three paragraphs in response to questions on past civic activities that may be helpful, goals for the committee, and why the candidate is interested in the committee (Franzmeier actually filled out an earlier version of the application that only had one question). An employer is listed, but there’s no request for any detailed resume.
The council members don’t ask the applicants—who are sitting right in front of them at the meeting—to elaborate on their qualifications.
Bellows says the three applicants aren’t qualified, but those qualifications are never discussed. Furthermore, he votes in favor of two of those three supposedly unqualified applicants, singling out the third, Green, for some unexplained reason.
Green’s actual qualifications: “I was a third party consultant for the biggest utility companies in the nation. I have extensive knowledge of Minnesota Dig laws, city ordinances, zoning laws, and construction practices. Further more, I have been a landlord for 10 years. I have worked alongside multiple city councils, planning Commissions, and code enforcement officers in my job.”
Bellows later seems to say qualifications have nothing to do with it: “This is not to suggest the applicants are not perfectly qualified.”
3. Candidates Haven’t Attended Meetings
Bellows goes on to argue that the candidates have not attended Planning Commission meetings “as far as I know.” He argues that not attending a meeting shows a lack of interest.
Again, Bellows votes in favor of two of those three applicants, despite their assumed lack of meeting attendance, but then votes against the third, Green.
Green’s response that night on Facebook: “I have watched every single Planning Commission and council meeting for the last five years.”
4. Reappoint John Ramsay
Finally Bellows and Iago argue that current Planning Commission member John Ramsay, whose term is up and wants to be considered for reappointment, should be reappointed.
There’s no discussion of Ramsay’s qualifications, other than he’s served well during his time on Planning Commission.
“Why isn’t serving on Planning Commission the top consideration?” says Iago, apparently arguing that incumbents are always better.
Bellows and Iago are basically arguing that Green shouldn’t serve on Planning Commission because she hasn’t served on Planning Commission before.
5. The Mayor’s Right to Nominate
Dave Napier, Dick Vitelli and Halverson all point out that the mayor has the right to nominate candidates and the council approves them. In the past, council members have argued that the mayor’s appointment should be honored.
“When the previous mayor, Meisinger, was here, we gave him the respect to appoint his appointees. Why is it different now that we have a female mayor?” Vitelli says. “I supported Meisinger’s appointments, gave the respect due to the mayor’s position, I think we owe that to the mayor. That was the argument then, why has it changed?”
Vitelli is referring to the 2015 appointment of John Ramsay. Initially Ramsay was rejected, and then later approved.
During the March 24, 2015 city council meeting former Mayor Meisinger nominated Anthony Fernandez and John Ramsay to the Planning Commission.
Halverson, at the time a council member, argued for the appointment of a different candidate, saying she felt another candidate was more qualified than Ramsay and better represented young families (in addition to Ramsay and Fernandez, three additional applicants had been interviewed by the council during a special council meeting).
At the time, Bellows argued that the council should just approve the mayor’s nominations. Bellow said (according to the minutes), “When mayor makes an appointment, [I] believes these are the best choices.” He later added, “It’s not really a matter of choices but the ordinance provides the mayor appointing and us confirming. Not us confirming who we want.”
Ramsay’s appointment in March 2015 was rejected.
Meisinger again appointed Ramsay and during the Sept. 14, 2015 city council meeting he was unanimously approved. The minutes are vague, but it appears this argument to respect the mayor’s power to appoint won out over concerns about more qualified applicants.
Now in 2018 the roles are reversed. Halverson is making appointments that are being challenged based on qualifications (sort of). In 2015 the council later relented and approved the mayor’s appointments. Maybe that’s what needs to happen again, for Halverson to reappoint Green and see if there truly is a double standard.
6. No Ward 1 Representation
Halverson also raises the point that the Planning Commission does not have any representation from Ward 1 and Green is from Ward 1.
There’s no response to this argument.
After all that debate (note that council persons Anthony Fernandez and Bob Pace did not contribute anything), the appointment of Green was rejected. Napier and Vitelli voted yes, but Bellows, Fernandez, Iago and Pace voted no.
After the vote ended, it wasn’t over. Halverson comments, “This will not be forgotten.” Vitelli can be heard commenting, “Good ol’ boys.”
Bellows then calls Halverson’s comment inappropriate. A voice from the audience, Jay DeLaRosby shouts out, “Your’s is inappropriate!” Bellows responds, “Mr. DeLaRosby, shut up,” before Halverson can restore order.
Bellows then reiterates, “This has nothing to do with the mayor’s decision, this has to do with voting on a person’s qualifications.”
Qualifications that were never discussed.
Or the qualification that you have to serve on a committee before you can be appointed to serve on a committee.
But it wasn’t over.
Before moving on, Bellows asked why Ramsay was not being considered for reappointment. Halverson responds that she thinks the other applicants are more qualified.
Bellows challenges this saying, “You had specifically said that of all the candidates in the world, Ramsay would not be one you would consider.”
“I did not say that,” Halverson says, reiterating that she thinks there are more qualified applicants. “I’m not trying to be petty here, but I don’t want words put in my mouth.”
Bellows chuckles at her explanation, and when Halverson calls him out, Bellows again challenges her claim, again putting words in her mouth, “In the entire universe of applicants, he’s being excluded.” Bellows seems unable to accept Halverson’s opinion that there are other more qualified candidates than Ramsay.
More Committee Vacancies
To further underscore the council’s dysfunction, the meeting continued with appointments to the Environmental and Parks & Recreation committees. The Environmental Committee has four vacancies and four people applied. Only one, a reappointment, was approved. The Parks & Recreation Committee has three vacancies and 10 people applied. Only two, both reappointments, were approved. So there are still three vacancies on the Environmental Committee and one on the Parks & Recreation Committee (and another on Planning Commission).
Again, it seems the only way to serve on a committee is to have already served on a committee.
As someone who just organized a civic engagement event where we encouraged citizens to apply to committees, I’m embarrassed that it seems to be so difficult to actually get approved to serve.
Mayor Halverson Not Seeking Reelection
Before all of this debate, Mayor Halverson announced that she would not be seeking reelection. After all the above drama you can image why, though family health issues have undoubtedly been a challenge.
While making her announcement (8:01 in the council video), Halverson implored the women of West St. Paul to stand up:
“I’m calling on all the women in West St. Paul to step up this year. For the last six years, I’ve been the only woman at this table.”
She goes on to note the historic lack of women in West St. Paul leadership positions, and hopes women will step forward like the committee applicants have done.
After seeing a city council meeting like this one, we need women now more than ever:
- If you’d like to run for mayor or city council, the filing period is May 22 through June 5. (Bellows, Iago, and Vitelli are all up in 2018.)
- If you’d like to apply to serve on a committee, you can apply here.
You can get more information on how to run or apply in a presentation from that civic engagement event (apparently we need more civic engagement than I thought).
This whole thing gets complicated. I see three simple conclusions:
- Bellows and Iago have now argued two sides of a council debate, one in 2015 and the opposite side in 2018. The main difference? The first female mayor in West St. Paul’s history was elected in 2016.
- They say it’s about qualifications, but then the qualifications are never discussed. They say it’s about showing interest through meeting attendance, but then they never showed interest enough to ask. They say you’re qualified to serve on a committee after you’ve served on a committee. They say it’s not personal, but then they single out one of the three applicants. The goalposts are always moving.
- They say they’re not being sexist, but then the male council member repeatedly challenges the female mayor, asking her to repeat her rationale multiple times, putting words in her mouth, and laughing at her—immediately after taking offense when a male council member did the same thing to him. It’s your actions—not your words about being a father of daughters—that prove whether or not you’re sexist.
I don’t know. Watch the video yourself, but I see a whole lot of sexism going on.
The one thing I find encouraging here: This is being hotly discussed on the usually vocal West St. Paul Neighbors page, but it’s different from the usual rancor and chicken joint comments. It’s mostly women and there’s little debate.
Update 4/25/2018: Harassment
Now some unknown perpetrators are harassing Mayor Jenny Halverson and Samantha Green, going so far as to leave tampons and tissues at their homes. Halverson has posted a strong message to Facebook condemning these acts:
“We will not be intimidated. We will not be shamed for speaking the truth. We will not be silenced.”
I stand with Halverson and Green and so many other women. Halverson said on Monday night that it’s time to stand up. If anyone is unsure about that, this just seals it.
Update 4/25/2018: Flipping Harassment
Samantha Green is now organizing this pretty spectacular response to that harassment: WSP Pad Drive. You can donate feminine hygiene products in person on May 14 at the next city council meeting or you can donate online.
Update 4:26/2018: Story Spreads & Former Mayor Shows His Colors
The story has been spreading in local media, including a lackluster story in the Pioneer Press, a straight-facts assessment in MPR’s Newscut blog, and a detailed blow-by-blow in the City Pages that takes a few swings but mostly tells it straight.
And then in the City Pages comments (screenshots on Facebook) we get vulgar slang from former West St. Paul Mayor David Meisinger. In the #MeToo era, mere days after a city council session erupts over sexism, when a community of women is rallying, he angrily responds to a woman named “Honeycutt” by calling her “Honeycunt.”
If Meisinger’s views on women weren’t already obvious, he just made them painfully clear. On his Facebook page, the former mayor also declares, “Samantha Green is not qualified for anything, much less a seat on the planning commission,” while crying “mis-information” and insisting there’s no sexism because the council approved the appointment of two women. Of course he’s missing the entire argument on that last point—no one is saying the council is sexist because they didn’t approve Green, they’re sexist because they argued to just accept a mayor’s appointment when it was Meisinger, a male, but not when it was Halverson, a female.
Update 4/29/2018: More Stories & Special Meeting
The Star Tribune picked the story up on Friday with a response from Bellows. He doesn’t get it and stands by his comments:
“Nothing that I said Monday night could be construed as misogynistic or sexist. I think it’s being blown way out of proportion.”
He also wasn’t impressed with the Pad Drive:
He said he supports the idea of more women running for public office but doesn’t see the point of women brandishing feminine products at the upcoming meeting.“They can do what they do,” Bellows said. “It’s free speech — what can I do?”
(The article has been edited over the weekend so the shorter print version replaced the longer online version, and several Bellows quotes were dropped.)
The council members who voted against Samantha Green have also called a special council meeting on Tuesday, May 1 at 9 a.m. The agenda? Appointment of planning commission member. That should be interesting. (And potentially pointless: There’s a question over whether or not they’ll have a quorum.)
Update 5/4/2018: Fox9 Story
The story continues on TV as Fox9 jumped it on it, “Live from West St. Paul.” It starts with a quote from council member Anthony Fernandez:
“It was a small political brushfire that turned in to the city burning down.”
What the Fox9 story doesn’t mention is that Fernandez started that brushfire.
The story goes on to capture Fernandez’s reaction:
Council member Fernandez is also disturbed by the harassing items found outside Green and Mayor Halverson’s homes, but does not agree the four no votes, including his, were sexist.
He says it was an attempt to help pave the way for a planning commissioner who wanted to be reinstated.
But let’s be clear that it’s not the no votes that were sexist, it’s the double-standard that argued for the mayor’s prerogative when the mayor is a man but not when the mayor is a woman.
While Fernandez doesn’t think it was sexist, he still admitted fault:
“I made a bad decision,” said Fernandez. “I made the wrong decision and I think more elected officials need to have a little more humility in their decision making and realize when they are wrong.”
It’s just not clear if he knows the mistake he made.
On the plus side, the story is getting people involved:
“I’ve been the only one there for nearly six years and to finally feel this community stand up and get in engaged, it’s amazing it’s wonderful,” said Mayor Halverson.
Update 5/14/2018: More Stories
And we’re ranging the gamut: