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St. Paul council members say new term will focus on crime, housing — and listening to critics

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
St. Paul City Council Members stated they intended to pursue ideas to boost the city’s supply of affordable housing, curb crime, and grow economic opportunities for low-wage workers.

St. Paul will make history Tuesday by inaugurating its newest and youngest City Council member — 24-year-old Nelsie Yang and celebrate the start of new terms for the council’s remaining six members voters re-elected in November. 

Yang and the returning members will be sworn in at the Ordway Concert Hall in downtown St. Paul Tuesday evening, signifying the start of the council term that ends in 2024. 

In interviews before the ceremony, the council members laid out their priorities for the coming years at City Hall. Above all, they said they will pursue ideas to boost the city’s supply of affordable housing, curb crime, grow economic opportunities for low-wage workers and engage more residents in what the city does, an effort that stems from the great trash debacle of 2019.

St. Paul’s newest council member

In the final vote tally, fewer than 1,000 first-choice votes separated Yang from challenger Terri Thao, a former St. Paul planning commissioner, to represent the East Side’s Ward 6. The ward’s long-time representative, Dan Bostrom, retired mid-term in 2018, and the contest for the seat was the most competitive race on the 2019 ballot

A second-generation Hmong-American, Yang grew up in north Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park before her parents moved to St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. While studying at Minnesota State University, Mankato, she volunteered for Ward 1 Council Member Dai Thao, and she later worked on campaigns for DFL state and congressional candidates. As an organizer for TakeAction Minnesota, she worked to rally support for St. Paul’s minimum wage increase and criminal justice reform, and she chairs an advocacy nonprofit called Hmong Americans for Justice.

Nelsie Yang
Nelsie Yang
Yang said her identity, including her age, will influence her policy-making for the better. “I’m someone who’s willing to say the truth and recognize that, yes, I am someone who is young and I’m also someone who is looking to learn … from my neighbors,” she said. “My age is actually one of my biggest assets, and it’s what makes me such a humble person, as well.” 

Yang is joining Ward 4’s Mitra Jalali Nelson, whom voters elected in a special election in 2018, as the St. Paul council’s only women of color. They’re also the only renters, and both say they are eager to challenge the status quo at City Hall. “We can really turn the page on some of the things that we’re behind on,” Nelson said. 

Public safety and housing 

Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony comes less than four weeks after the city finalized its 2020 budget, which will be key for how the council members begin their next four years in office.

Overall, police spending was at the center of the budget discussions. The city saw 31 homicides in 2019, a 25-year high, and some residents and police leaders urged the council to find money to add more police officers to improve safety. In the end, Carter and council instead decided to shrink the police force by five sworn positions in 2020.

But the city’s debate over police staffing is not over. Brendmoen said the council is reviewing a study of police department resources conducted by former Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier, who is now a St. Paul police commander, so that the council is “ready to have that conversation going into the 2021 budget.”

Additionally, the council will soon launch new efforts outside of the police department that aim to address the root causes of violence, such as new community ambassadors, using $1.5 million in the 2020 budget.

In addition to focusing on public safety, council members said they will make moves in the coming years to preserve existing affordable housing and build new homes that low- and middle-wage workers can afford.

Specifically, they plan to build off of policy recommendations from the city’s “fair housing work group,” a committee of city housing researchers that formed under the direction of former Mayor Chris Coleman. According to the group’s findings, the city needs to add 18,000 units to its housing stock over the next decade to house newcomers, and the majority of that new construction should target households that earn less than 30 percent of the area’s median income (or about $28,300 for a family of four). Yet that’s not counting new housing that’s needed currently to house the hundreds of residents who are struggling to pay rent or who are homeless.

Council President Amy Brendmoen
Council President Amy Brendmoen
Working in the city’s favor are a handful of massive redevelopment projects coming on line that could add thousands of new homes in the coming years. The construction plan for the 122-acre Ford site along the Mississippi River, alone, calls for 3,800 new housing units, a portion of which must be below market rate. The project to redevelop the former Hillcrest Golf Club on the East Side could grow the city’s stock by 1,000, too.

“In a built-up city of our size, it’s fairly unusual to have one project like this and we have, like, five,” Brendmoen said.

Several council members also said they will make adding protections for renters in city code a top priority in the coming months. The fair housing work group, for example, has recommended that the council pass laws that would require landlords to give renters advance notice of the property owners’ intent to sell (similar to an existing ordinance in Minneapolis) and prohibit landlords from terminating the leases of people who are complying with the contract’s rules at-will.

Trash aftermath 

While the 2019 citywide vote on trash affirmed the current pickup system by nearly a 2-1 margin, St. Paul’s elected leaders view the controversy as a wake up call — and said they realize they have to do a better job listening to the concerns of all of their constituents.

Council Member Rebecca Noecker, first elected in 2015 to represent downtown neighborhoods, said the public outcry exposed this perception among some residents that Mayor Melvin Carter and the council are making decisions without considering the public’s wishes. “[Like we are] kind of sitting there with our hands in our ears and our hands over our eyes and just making decisions totally independently of thinking about what the public wants,” she said. 

Council Member Jane Prince, who was first elected in 2015 to serve parts of the East Side, echoed Noecker’s assessment. “More than ever … we learned in this past election … that the community really wants to be listened to,” she said. “We have to be more sensitive to the fact that, in much of our city, people … can’t continue to afford this piling on of fees and programs and taxes.”

In response to those concerns, returning council members say they want to engage those who carry long-term frustration with how the city operates.“Sometimes the loudest critics are the ones with the best ideas,” Noecker said.

For starters, Council President Amy Brendmoen, who represents the city’s north-central neighborhoods as the Ward 5 council member, said she wants to create more opportunities for residents to do work for the city, whether via volunteer positions or formal partnerships. “There’s so many people that sit on their keyboards and are critical of the city,” she said. “When you’re part of the team, I think it’s harder to be as critical.”

Rebecca Noecker
Council Member Rebecca Noecker
Meanwhile, Noecker said she is pushing for new audits in coming months to show what, exactly, St. Paul is spending taxpayer money on. “Making sure we’re getting results really helps show people, ‘No, we do care’ that we’re actually delivering for you.”

Additionally, several council members said they will try to be more creative with how they broadcast upcoming plans and events to gauge public feedback. That way, they hope, fewer people will feel left out of their decisions, the council members said.

“They need us to do a better job of covering the basics,” Prince said.

Council Member Dai Thao, who was first elected in 2013, said while the election divided some parts of St. Paul, he urges residents to find common ground. “Let’s focus on the big picture,” he said. “We’re all Americans; We should be very careful about pitting ourselves against each other on this [type of] policy.”

Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony will begin at 4:30 p.m. and feature artistic performances from local acts. It’s free and open to the public, though organizers ask that you confirm your attendance to ensure seats. Then, on Wednesday, the council will hold its first meeting of the new term, where it will elect council leadership and appoint members for boards and commissions. Council Members Brendmoen and Noecker are expected to continue as president and vice president, respectively, the council members said.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/07/2020 - 12:00 pm.

    That trash referendum was a complete waste of time. Yes won easily, all the yes-supporting incumbents won easily, while one of the no-supporting members got crushed and replaced with a yes-supporting candidate. I wonder what the election would have looked like without that nonsense. Oh well, at least we know that Melvin Carter is going to be mayor for as long as he wants the job.

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/07/2020 - 01:10 pm.

    It’s a bit early to say it was a complete waste of time, especially if the newly-sensitized council members follow through on what they have had to say about paying attention to the people.

    On that subject, I assume the Council rolled over and gave Mayor Carter the money for his conversion of Ayd Mill Road, but I’ve seen nothing to confirm that. Anyone?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/07/2020 - 03:44 pm.

      The idea that there wasn’t enough process and that people weren’t listened to was simply false. My biggest problem with organized collection was that they did listen to people and kept the small haulers in the mix, driving up the cost. The lesson here is that no matter what, people who disagree will complain about the process. Just ignore them and do what’s right, and you will get easily re-elected.

      I sure hope we do Carter’s plan for Ayd Mill. It would be crazy not to. Hopefully the election results will make that happen.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/07/2020 - 05:47 pm.

        Yeah, if my side didn’t get it’s way we weren’t listened to.

      • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 01/07/2020 - 09:11 pm.

        They claimed that the goal was to keep the small haulers in the mix, but then due to the total incompetence of the city, negotiated a contract with absolutely no provision to prevent the small haulers from being bought up by Waste Management, etc….. All made possible by the inflated rates negotiated by the haulers and guaranteed for the 5 year duration of the contract.

        Don’t get me started on the idiotic requirement that each living unit, in a multi unit building needs its own trash container. Nobody bothered to think about where all these containers were going to be stored. Why is a 4 plex required to have 4 small containers vs one or two large ones? Why can’t a bunch of neighbors get together and share a common dumpster, like we did under the old system, rather than fill the alleys with an incredible number of trash containers?

        All of this could have been avoided if the city did a small pilot project first to work the kinks out. But the hubris that the city knows best prevented that.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/08/2020 - 09:47 am.

          The haulers didn’t want limitations on selling their routes and the city didn’t care. I’m not sure limiting that would even be legal and failing to do so certainly isn’t incompetent. You also make it sound like Waste Management forced them to sell. The small haulers got a sweet deal by selling out, and that payout is why the cost is more. If the city had simply bid it out and given it to Waste Management, we’d be paying less. Blame Berquist if you are unhappy about the cost.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/07/2020 - 05:51 pm.

      St. Paul taxpayers pay for the entire cost of Ayd Mill Road. There are no properties that front along it, so no one gets assessed for it’s maintenance. Mostly it benefits commuters from the south suburbs heading to MPLS.

      If it gets re-built, those commuters should pony up, not us.

      We (the citizens of the city) should make the road work for us. We don’t benefit from someone just passing through.

      • Submitted by Tom Crain on 01/08/2020 - 08:20 pm.

        Are you proposing a city owned toll road?

        The Highland Villager has a guest editorial proposing the state rebuild Ayd Mill as a two lane limited access parkway fully connected to I-35E and I-94.

  3. Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 01/08/2020 - 09:18 am.

    Some members of the council took away some strange conclusions from the trash debate. Considering that organized trash collection won in a rout, it seems odd to suggest that the council wasn’t listening to people. By all appearances, they did exactly what an overwhelming majority of residents wanted them to do. The anti-organized-trash side are the ones who should do less talking and more listening.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/08/2020 - 10:01 am.

      Jane Prince was the surviving “no” candidate and is generally wrong about everything (big NIMBY, etc.) so her reaction is no surprise. I think everyone else is just being nice.

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