The 2018 West St. Paul mayoral race is an open contest since incumbent Mayor Jenny Halverson announced she wasn’t running. Current council members Anthony Fernandez and Dave Napier are vying for the job.
I’m voting for Dave Napier.
Anthony Fernandez currently serves as Ward 2 council member (first elected in 2016) and was a previous city council candidate in St. Paul (lost to Melvin Carter in 2011). Fernandez also served on the Planning Commission (appointed by Dave Meisinger in 2015). He’s a real estate broker with a background in construction.
Dave Napier currently serves as a Ward 3 council member (first elected in 2012). Napier has been a longtime pillar in the community. He’s the former director of buildings and grounds at local nonprofit the Dodge Nature Center and has volunteered in a range of places in West St. Paul, from sports to Kiwanis.
Overall Message: Are We Better Off?
We have a stark choice between these two candidates. Dave Napier says we’re doing good things, and we need to come together and keep moving forward. Anthony Fernandez says we’re saddled with mistakes like Robert Street and we need “aggressive” economic development.
I think Napier captures the spirit and progress that West St. Paul has made. Robert Street was a tough decision, but it had to be done. And we’re better for it. You can actually drive on the street now, and I think the economic development is happening. We’ve seen 17 new businesses come to Robert Street and there’s more reinvestment and remodeling happening on Robert Street than ever before.
And the new Robert Street only helps. It’s easy to throw stones at that project, but it’s a lot harder to come up with a better plan—and Fernandez never had a better plan.
Despite the economic development we already have, Fernandez insists we need more. A lot more. How much? That’s unclear, but what if we compare it to the proposed sales tax? To get that kind of revenue we would need “a pile” of economic development (according to the city manager)—to the tune of eight Target-size businesses or 54 Walgreens-size businesses. We all want economic development, but creating that much seems like an impossible promise.
I think we’re better off than we were five years ago. I think West St. Paul is making improvements, and you can see it all around town: the Dome, Harmon Park, Robert Street, new businesses, our other streets slowly improving, the Greenway, etc.
One of the problems I have with Fernandez’ campaign is that a lot of what he proposes isn’t new or different:
- Community gardens: Fernandez has proposed community gardens as a way to engage residents and beautify the city. But we’ve had community garden programs in the past and currently have a group of volunteers who help with planters and gardening throughout the city.
- Public art: Fernandez wants to see more public art in the city. I’d love to see that too. But there’s the proposed art park on the corner of Butler and Oakdale that’s suffered from a lack of funding and attention.
- Diversity: Fernandez touts his diversity credentials and has proposed a diversity committee, but that’s something current Mayor Jenny Halverson has championed in the past and is currently supposed to be a staff-led effort. (It’s also bizarre that this diversity effort didn’t start until the lead-up to his run for mayor.)
- Homelessness: While he voted against the new homeless shelter ordinance the first time around in order to make it better (though it was pitched as a pilot program and had to be passed quickly to get started in November), he voted for it in the final reading and then went on TV to proclaim the benefits. It’s great he’s talking up West St. Paul, but this entire issue actually came to the council because of Dave Napier. Of course Napier isn’t the kind of guy to insist on credit or try to claim the spotlight.
- Loans: Fernandez has proposed low- or no-interest loans to help homeowners improve their properties. It’s a great idea, but something West St. Paul has offered in the past and Dakota County currently offers.
Look, good ideas are good ideas. There’s nothing wrong with grabbing and supporting good ideas. That’s what smart leaders do. But give credit where credit is due, build on what’s already been done, and form partnerships with the people doing the legwork.
I don’t see Anthony Fernandez doing that.
I see Dave Napier doing a lot to build on the good ideas he sees in the community. Throughout the mayoral forum Napier listed example after example of good things happening in the city that we could build on: solar panels on city hall, the volunteer coordinator who grew volunteers from 60 to 300, the recycling coordinator, pulling the pedestrian plan out of the “dungeon” and dusting it off, tearing down problem properties and rebuilding, etc.
While Fernandez offered vague ideas, Napier had concrete examples and specifics.
Open the Lines of Communication
One point of Fernandez’ five-point plan is to open the lines of communication. He wants to engage more with residents. But his track record is not so good.
- When his actions sparked the sexism controversy, he did all kinds of deflection and changing his story when people started asking questions. I even had to remind him that he said he’d answer questions when he tried to dodge my questions. Plus, what good is opening lines of communication if we can’t trust that you’re telling us the truth?
- He’s not answered residents in the past and even blocked residents (which he described as “comical”; can we marvel at that for a moment? A candidate for mayor who wants to open the lines of communication blocked a resident because he thought it was funny). At the Oct. 8 city council meeting a resident asked about his behavior toward the city attorney at the previous meeting. Fernandez didn’t respond. I asked about it on Twitter, and he said he’d spoken to the city attorney but wouldn’t say if he responded to the resident with the original question.
- At the League of Women Voters mayoral forum, many people noticed that Fernandez bolted from the room as soon as it was over (he nearly left before it was over). He might have recognized a hostile audience, and in some ways I don’t blame him for leaving quickly if that’s what he perceived. But if you’re going to be mayor—and especially a mayor who “opens the lines of communication”—you have to engage with people, even if they disagree with you. Maybe he had somewhere to be—but it’s a pattern with him.
- Just last week I asked Fernandez to clarify a comment he made in the South West Review: He’s “noticed a lack of attention to detail on day-to-day city operations.” His statement seems to criticize City Manager Ryan Schroeder, which would be odd since one of Fernandez’s first actions on city council was to force the previous city manager to resign. Fernandez hasn’t responded to multiple requests for clarification.
I get it. The city is riled up right now and some people are angry at Fernandez. He can’t win. But you don’t make progress in that situation by saying you’ll open the lines of communication and then not talking to the people who are upset. You have to find a way to mend fences.
In contrast, Dave Napier has always been available and forthright. In the mayoral forum he owned up to a specific mistake. He may not answer every single email like he claimed in the mayoral forum, but he’s answered the questions I needed answered. He’s available and approachable.
Ultimately, I think the sexism controversy in West St. Paul has been very telling about these two candidates.
Anthony Fernandez sparked the whole thing by pulling Samantha Green’s appointment from the consent agenda so it could be discussed separately (and then not saying anything). Then he changed his story about why he did it, first saying he thought someone else was more qualified, then admitting he had personal issues with Green. He apologized to Green for that, but never addressed changing his story.
As this issue has continued to smolder, Fernandez has done little if anything to address the concerns. He denied that sexism even occurred in the initial meeting. He alluded to the personal issue being one of his biggest mistakes at the mayoral forum, but wouldn’t come right out and admit it. I imagine Fernandez feels like he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t on this issue, but when you make a statement that sounds more like a threat—”I’m not going anywhere”—I don’t think you’re trying very hard to fix it.
Meanwhile Napier stood behind Halverson and backed her up. He’s repeatedly spoken out against the harassment and has said it’s embarrassing for our city. Fernandez has likewise spoken out against the harassment, but Napier has gone further and said that kind of behavior trickles down from the council table, and it’s up to them to set the tone for the city.
We Need a Leader
I think Anthony Fernandez has some good ideas and energy. But I’m not sure he’s ready to lead. His campaign seems to be full of ideas he should have been making progress on as a council member or at least building partnerships with others who already championed those ideas. His response to the sexism controversy has exposed his inability to lead.
Dave Napier has been pouring into West St. Paul all his life. He’s selfless, honest, and takes responsibility—while also sharing credit. He sees good things happening in West St. Paul and is ready to capitalize on that momentum.
“I’m ready to lead the city and make it the best it can be,” Napier said at the Optimists Club forum.
I think we have a clear choice for mayor. I hope you’ll join me in voting for Dave Napier.
Vote on November 6
That’s my choice for mayor. You can make your own decision and then vote on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 (or earlier). The West St. Paul city website has details on where and how to vote. You can 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 several candidate forums:
- Townsquare TV Mayoral & City Council Forum
- League of Women Voters Mayoral Forum (also see my recap)
- Optimists 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
- River-to-River Greenway trail
(Full disclosure: I have donated to the campaign of Dave Napier.)