Ward 2 city council forum: John Justen and Jim Probst

2018 West St. Paul Ward 2 City Council Race: John Justen vs. Jim Probst

The 2018 West St. Paul Ward 2 city council race is an open contest since incumbent Ed Iago is not running. John Justen and Jim Probst are vying for the seat.

I’m supporting John Justen (I don’t live in Ward 2 and can’t vote in this race).

The Candidates

John Justen is a local small business owner with longtime roots in the community. He first ran for city council in 2016 (losing to Anthony Fernandez). He’s notable for diving into policy discussions and taking clear positions, something many candidates avoid.

Jim Probst (no campaign site) is a South Robert Street Business Association board member and dedicated Kiwanis volunteer. He was recently appointed to the Charter Commission, and this is Probst’s first bid for public office.

Biggest Difference: Attention to Detail

While watching the Women of West St. Paul (WoW) Ward 2 candidate forum it seemed like both candidates had similar positions on the issues. They agree on pride flags, Tobacco 21, sidewalks, the Annapolis/Dodd/Charlton intersection, decorum and respect, that sales tax is up to the voters, and supporting the Greenway.

The main difference seems to be thoroughness and attention to detail. Throughout the forums, and especially the Ward 2 forum, Justen offered specifics while Probst had mostly vague ideas:

  • Both candidates argued for sidewalks, but Probst simply said safety is a priority while Justen talked about addressing the 100% assessment on new sidewalks that makes them a burden for residents.
  • When asked about the empty lot on the north end of Robert Street, Probst talked about bringing a brewpub to West St. Paul (buzzword bingo!) while Justen explained the challenges of that specific lot.
  • A change to the group home ordinance was questioned by both candidates, and Probst told a detailed story about the difficulty of older residents needing non-emergency help and having to call 911. He illustrated the challenge well, but he offered no solutions.
  • At the WoW forum, Probst said he wished there was a question about the YMCA. He says we need to find a way to keep the Y in West St. Paul, but he had no ideas about how to do it. Justen spoke about the challenge of keeping the YMCA in West St. Paul and that ultimately it’s up to them.

I will say that Jim Probst did have more details on the pride flags, noting how much the South Robert Street Business Association paid for banners last year.

But overall, John Justen has a much deeper grasp of the issues facing West St. Paul. He knows the issues inside out, as well as the arguments for and against.

Wrong or Misleading

Furthermore, Jim Probst was wrong or misleading on a number of issues.

  • He gave numbers for property tax increases that don’t match the official city numbers.
  • He overstated how soon the proposed sales tax could be implemented.
  • When talking about the needs of the elderly, an important issue, he exaggerated where West St. Paul stands in relation to the rest of the state.

I wrote a detailed fact check on those issues. I’ll admit some are nitpicky (e.g., the elderly population), but it points to a broader pattern. I didn’t fact check every statement Probst made, because nitpicking, but there were others where he made exaggerated claims (“the golf course is the most valuable piece of property in Dakota County”) or said things that were not entirely accurate (arguing that four of the seven seats on the council will change; four positions will change, but there will only be three new people on the council).

I’m not saying Jim Probst has his facts wrong on everything. Some of these are minor exaggerations or could easily be corrected with some simple context. But the fact that he doesn’t do that is misleading. Especially when he’s talking about an issue that’s important to him like taxes (he described it as his number one issue in the Town Square TV forum).

There may be some similarities on the issues between Justen and Probst, but I think John Justen has a more thorough and detailed understanding of the issues and is able to communicate that.

Divergence: Taxes & Economic Development

Where do Probst and Justen diverge? I think we start to see bigger differences between the two when it comes to taxes and economic development.

Much like Fernandez in the mayor’s race, Probst is critical of the proposed sales tax, and points to economic development as our way forward. Also like Fernandez, he’s been critical of Robert Street in the past—though he’s avoided talking about it during the campaign.

Probst pushes economic development as a way to expand the tax base and avoid taxes:

“If we can spur economic development on Robert street—get more businesses, get more people coming in here, utilizing that street, filling up some of those empty spots—we can raise that money to hopefully not necessarily have to have that tax revenue… We need to pull up our bootstraps and go ahead and go after these new businesses, go after economic development, and really work hard to make an increase in our tax base.” (WoW Ward 2 candidate forum)

What he doesn’t talk about is how much economic development it would take to make a significant impact. It’s a lot—“a pile” as the city manager put it. We all want economic development, but I’m not sure it’s possible to raise enough revenue through expanding the tax base alone.

Probst is right that the sales tax is not a panacea, but neither is economic development.

And as I noted above, it’s disconcerting that Probst is giving numbers about his number one issue that don’t match the city’s official numbers.

John Justen, on the other hand, has had more of a balanced view on economic development. He sees the Robert Street project as a hard choice we had to make, but investment and maintenance of our infrastructure is crucial. Otherwise it only gets worse.

Justen talks about using his experience as a small business owner to attract developers with a vision for high-value, independent businesses—not just more chains.

Open Communication

In my fact check article I criticized Jim Probst for saying he values communication but then not doing a very good job of it himself. Clarity on a lot of these issues is one thing lacking from Probst. His campaign literature touts his volunteer service in the community, but doesn’t talk about the issues.

A further example of this is two ideas he proposed at the Optimists Club Candidate Forum: replacing the ward system with at-large city council members and changing the mayoral term from two years to four years.

These are big idea issues. The mayor’s term has been considered by the Charter Commission and voted down by the city council twice in the last five years (it only takes one ‘no’ vote on council to kill a change to the charter). Eliminating the wards also sparked a lot of conversation.

Those ideas received a lot of interest and created dialogue. Rather than argue the merits of these two issues, I just wish Probst had a platform to explain and defend his position on these issues. But he doesn’t have a website and he’s not active on Facebook. All we got were a few comments at the Optimists’ Club forum.

On the other hand, I don’t think anyone could accuse John Justen of not communicating enough. He takes clear positions on issues and explains his rationale. In the 2016 race I noted how Justen went on a local podcast to talk at length about local issues.

Sexism Controversy

Perhaps the biggest difference between Justen and Probst has been their response to the recent sexism controversy.

  • Justen released a detailed and specific statement about the issue. When I asked Probst to comment, he took four months to give a vague response.
  • Probst has suggested that the election will take care of this issue by replacing four of the seven seats at the council table (in reality, there will only be three new people at the table after the election). It’s unclear how that will address sexism, especially if someone as blatantly sexist as David Meisinger were to win.
  • Probst said eliminating the ward system and having at-large candidates would help take care of the sexism problem by making candidates represent the entire city. It’s also unclear how this helps the sexism issue. If anything, it creates an even larger barrier to running for office (Wendy Berry noted that she wouldn’t run if it were a city-wide race).
  • While Probst has acknowledged the negative issues, his solution is to focus on the positive. It’s a great to be an optimist, but negative issues won’t go away unless they’re dealt with.
  • Finally, Probst has responded to sexism issues multiple times by noting that he was raised by a single mother and had four sisters. This kind of relational empathy falls short of respecting women as individual, equal humans. Meanwhile Justen has been very clear about standing “in opposition to sexism, intimidation, and harassment.”

Let me be clear: I’m not saying Probst is sexist. What I’m saying is his response fails to recognize the gravity of the situation. When women are rising up, packing the city council chambers, and organizing their own advocacy group, no candidate should take four months to issue a statement about this controversy. And when they do finally issue a statement, it should clearly condemn sexism.

Justen’s statement, in contrast, doesn’t pull any punches. It’s clear, direct, and unambiguous.

Verdict: John Justen

I’ve said before that it’s undeniable that Probst has been committed to this community. He’s a dedicated volunteer and supporter of local businesses. But that’s not the only consideration for serving on council.

I think John Justen has given more solid answers and has better communication with the public. I think that reflects well on his potential service on the council.

Justen knows the issues better and recognizes the current climate. He knows it will take intentional work to fix the damage caused by this spring’s sexism controversy—it won’t be solved merely by replacing a few seats at the city council table.

Vote on November 6

That’s my take on the Ward 2 race. 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:

I’ve also asked the candidates a number of questions:

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