The League of Women Voters Dakota County hosted the first ever West St. Paul mayoral candidates forum on Friday, Oct. 12. More than 50 people filled the council chambers at city hall to hear candidates Anthony Fernandez and Dave Napier answer questions. We had the best attended of any of the League’s candidate forums.
You can watch the forum online.
In previous years West St. Paul has never had this kind of attention paid to its political process. In the past two election cycles we’ve had hotly contested mayor’s races, and West St. Paul even had a mayoral primary in 2016. But most years there’s the Town Square TV candidate forum, and that’s it. That forum includes all mayoral and city council candidates for the general election, which means a limited time to dig into the issues.
This year’s Town Square TV forum included 7 questions.
Last night’s League of Women Voters forum included 31 questions.
That’s an incredible opportunity for the citizens of West St. Paul to hear from their mayoral candidates and make an informed choice. I couldn’t be more proud of my city, and I’m grateful to the League of Women Voters for organizing this event and to the candidates for participating.
Candidate Forum Highlights
This has been one of the more informative candidate forums, and I couldn’t help but point out a few [a lot] of highlights. This is hardly a non-biased account (I’m just a blogger, I get to have opinions), but I did try to be fair.
First, let’s have a little fun.
- Buzzword bingo: “Brewpub.” Points to Napier for dropping a crowd-pleasing buzzword on the second question.
- Shortest answer: “Yes.” The single word response was Fernandez’ answer to whether or not he supports the city’s tree replacement program. Sometimes it’s nice to see a politician stop talking.
- Second shortest answer: “Why not?” The two word response was Fernandez’ answer to a question about ranked choice voting, after Napier said he wasn’t a big fan of it. This minimalist response could have used some elaboration, especially for people not familiar with some of the benefits of the ranked choice voting.
- Dodge dropper: Six times Napier mentioned Dodge Nature Center, where he’s worked for 38 years. It eventually became a laugh line.
- Nerds: For the city charter nerds in the house, there’s a fun process element to this mayoral race since both candidates are current council members and whoever wins will create a vacancy on the council. According to Section 2.05, the council will appoint a replacement, and according to Section 2.06, the mayor gets a vote in that appointment (the mayor normally doesn’t vote). Fernandez wasn’t sure of the process, but did say we’d have as fair a process as possible. Napier referred back to the last vacancy (filled by Dick Vitelli) and said it comes down to finding someone willing to serve—he also has a list of three to four possibilities (any guesses who?).
- Rule breaker: Jay DeLaRosby broke decorum and applauded Napier’s answer about the River-to-River Greenway, earning an admonition from the moderator. It’s not the first time DeLaRosby has been admonished in the city council chambers. During the contentious April 23, 2018 city council meeting, DeLaRosby’s “You’re inappropriate!” outburst earned him a “Mr. DeLaRosby, shut up!” comment from council member John Bellows (and later an apology).
Instead of softballs or predictable questions, there were a number of really good questions that helped us see the character of the candidates. Here are a few of those great questions and a couple others that speak to character.
- Best question: “Through your political career, what is the biggest mistake you made, and how did you correct it? What did you learn?” Wow, tough question! Fernandez didn’t give a specific example (though he did have to answer the tough question first) but talked about making daily mistakes and learning from them. Napier referenced a vote he made early in his first term on council that he didn’t research properly and regretted. He talked about the importance of taking every vote seriously and how he’s done that since.
- Second best question: “If you don’t win the mayoral race, how will you help the person who does win to bring the city together?” Another tough one. Napier talked about an experience at Dodge where he was competing with a coworker for the executive director job and didn’t get it. But he shared his ideas and worked with the new executive director for another seven years. Fernandez talked about working together to get things done after the dust settled: “I’m about results.”
- Feelings: Can you separate personal feelings from your work as mayor? Napier: “If you’re on the council for the right reasons and have a passion for your city, the personal side just flows with what the city wants to do.” Fernandez: “Remember that mistake question? That’s how one of the mistakes happened.” He didn’t get into details, but I think he’s referring to his personal feelings against Samantha Green that launched the sexism controversy. I realize it’s a touchy subject, but it would have been nice to see him address this head on.
- Bragging moment: When asked about their greatest accomplishment, Napier didn’t point to a specific instance, but talked about leaving things better than you found them: “We’re better off than we were five years ago.” Twice Fernandez talked about city participation in the West Side’s Cinco De Mayo parade as evidence of his work on diversity and his greatest accomplishment. It’s a fun event and a great thing for West St. Paul to be a part of, but it’s odd to mention something outside West St. Paul as your greatest achievement.
A forum is not a debate and there’s little opportunity for any back and forth. In some cases that means candidates can say whatever they want, even if it’s wrong or misleading. So let’s check some things.
- Diversity: Fernandez touted his plan to develop a diversity committee, something Mayor Jenny Halverson has pushed for a long time and is currently supposed to be a staff-led effort.
Verdict: Misleading. This is something West St. Paul needs, but let’s give credit where credit is due. Halverson has talked about this since her days as a council member. Fernandez started talking about this in the lead up to his run for mayor.
- New business: Napier said about 20 new businesses have come to Robert Street. This seemed to be a direct response to answers from the previous Town Square forum that indicated Robert Street hasn’t seen any new business since the reconstruction. I’m still working to get an actual count from the city, but by my count Napier is in the ballpark.
Verdict: True. (Update, Oct. 15, 2018: With info from the city, I count 17 new businesses in the last two years on or near Robert Street that are open or planning to. I think that qualifies as “about 20.” There’s also an incredible amount of remodeling happening along on Robert Street, so existing businesses are reinvesting.)
- Responsiveness: Napier bragged, “I have never once not responded to an email quickly.” That’s too bold of a claim to make—I know of emails from the past week that haven’t received a response from Napier. And honestly, it shouldn’t be an expectation. Not every email requires a response. In contrast, Fernandez touts one of the points of his five-point plan as “open the lines of communication,” yet he’s been criticized during his time on council for not responding to—and even blocking—some residents.
Verdict: Both are false, though being wrong about a key part of your campaign is much worse than an off-the-cuff exaggeration.
- Sidewalks: Fernandez suggested the city needs to move a city-wide funding mechanism for new sidewalks instead of assessing the house with the sidewalk 100%. Fernandez suggested previous councils failed to act on this, saying, “You can talk or you can do something about it.” The 100% sidewalk assessment policy has been in place for a while, but the current council approved changes to the assessment policy in April 2018 and did not change the sidewalk policy (see page 7). Also, a city-wide solution was in the works under former City Manager Matt Fulton, whose forced resignation was one of Fernandez’ first votes as a new council member.
Verdict: It’s a change that should be made, but Fernandez is all talk and (so far) no action.
- State of the city: In response to a question about keeping residents informed, Fernandez noted that the we haven’t had a state of the city speech in a while.
Verdict: True. Mayor Halverson has not given such a speech for several reasons. She wanted to get wider city council input on such a speech, but that idea wasn’t well received. She also wanted to do something that more accurately reflected the city and not just one person’s agenda. Halverson said she felt our annual community forums do a better job of that. Napier also chimed in on the issue in the next question about the harassment against women: “You talk about the state of the city, I think people know the state of our city.”
And then let’s get to the actual issues here in West St. Paul:
- Robert Street: Fernandez again attacked the reconstruction project saying the previous city council “failed the city.” Yet he’s never said what the city should have done instead. It was a hard choice, and it had to be done. Napier firmly defended the project, saying “I wouldn’t change Robert Street for a minute.”
- Property tax increases: Fernandez said we need to expand the tax base. Napier said we need to keep them in check, but balance it with investment: “We saw what happened when you let infrastructure go.”
- Harassment: The issue of targeted harassment and vandalism came up at the most recent city council meeting and it came up during the mayoral forum. Fernandez hoped the police will give an official statement, something that’s been lacking. Napier lamented that it’s a tough case for the police to solve. But he also said it’s a problem that ultimately starts at the council table and trickles down.
- Body cameras: Speaking of public safety, Fernandez chimed in on a potential opportunity: “I believe it’s time for our city to implement body cameras.” Last month, the Mendota Heights city council began to consider body cameras in an effort started by the police department.
- Affordable housing: Napier focused on the 47% of West St. Paul residents who are renters, seeming to imply that all renters are in affordable housing. Fernandez had a better grasp of the issue, noting it’s the work he’s done all his life, and talked about the importance of more housing options for seniors like the recently approved DARTS center.
- Property improvement: Fernandez talked about offering low- or no-interest loans to homeowners to improve properties. That’s a great idea, though I’m pretty sure it’s something West St. Paul has done in the past and Dakota County currently offers. The bigger question: Do we have the money to pay for it?
- Greenway: I loved Napier’s comment that a tunnel is going to work a lot better than an overpass. He also hits on the importance of getting it done: “There’s a missing link and it’s right through our city.”
- Public art: Twice Fernandez mentioned the need for public art in West St. Paul. He’s right. There has been an effort to start an art park on the corner of Butler and Oakdale, though it’s suffered from a lack of funding and attention.
- Give a hoot: In response to a question about litter, Fernandez recommended more garbage cans that get emptied more often. Napier pointed to the option of bringing in Dakota county corrections workers to help clean up. And he pre-empted any potential criticism that tends to crop up when we talk about people who are incarcerated: “They’re good people. They made a mistake, but they’re good people.”
Vote on November 6
The general election is on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. The West St. Paul city website has details on where and how to vote. You can also vote early with an absentee ballot, either by mail or by stopping at the Dakota County offices.
If you’d like more information on the candidates, there have been and will be several candidate forums:
- Townsquare TV Mayoral & City Council Forum
- League of Women Voters Mayoral Forum
- October 17: Optimist Club Candidate Forum
I’ve also asked the candidates a number of questions:
- Robert Street debt
- Pride flags
- Medians and roundabouts
- Making better headlines
- Meisinger’s inappropriate behavior
You can also look at my take on the mayoral race.
Thanks again to the League of Women Voters for hosting the event, the candidates for participating, and the people of West St. Paul for being engaged.
(Full disclosure: I have donated to the campaign of Dave Napier.)