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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.