Zanmiller reflects on decade leading West St. Paul

Mayor John Zanmiller breaks down at his last meeting Dec. 15, as his wife Laura gives an emotional speech at the podium in the council chambers. She reflected on his time as mayor. Zanmiller's successor, David Meisinger, was sworn in Jan. 2. (submitted photo)

'Long game' was the goal

As a new mayor takes over leading West St. Paul, John Zanmiller says he feels somewhat relieved. 

At the same time, he said he wishes he could have done more in his decade-long run in the city's top spot.

"I came in as mayor when the economy was in shambles," he said in a recent interview. "There were a lot of things I had hoped to accomplish, but it was all about keeping the ship righted."

After serving two years as a West St. Paul City Council member, Zanmiller ran for mayor in the 2004 election. He said he initially ran for council because he saw the town he loved start to deteriorate. The infrastructure was aging and "it seemed like we had lost our competitive edge."

He reflected on a conversation he had with his wife, Laura, about whether they should move or stay put:

"We can do one of two things," Zanmiller recalled saying. "We can look for greener pastures and spend more time on the road every day or we could take some of that time that we put behind the windshield and put it into the city." 

A look back

In his 12 years of service, Zanmiller steered West St. Paul through economic hardships, as the city balanced its finances in part through decreasing dependence on local government aid from the state. He also saw a new maintenance facility built, a crucial step in improving efficiency, as staff used to have to take plows off the trucks to fit them in the garage, he said. He introduced the rental-density ordinance, "maintaining our commitment to ensuring quality housing."

During his time as mayor, he said, the city put more cops on the streets, and he advocated taking the cap off the city's prosecution budget. 

One of the many axioms that guided him in his mayorship: "Have a vision of where you want to be, because you can't go back to where you were."

He focused on making West St. Paul a "resilient community," he said. That involved striking a balance between offering a wide range of housing to residents, providing a business culture that encourages variety, and boosting schools so families have education options in the city.

"A resilient community can weather rough storms," he said. 

Along with his main regret of missing out on time with his family, he said he wishes he could have been more diligent in his efforts to "build bridges." 

For example, he said it took him a long time to form connections with the school district, but once it happened, that partnership helped the city save the West St. Paul Ice Arena in a short period of time, he said.

'Taking heat' for Robert Street

Contributing to his loss in the November election, Zanmiller said he "took the heat" for the controversial Robert Street reconstruction project — and the rising cost estimates for the first phase. He didn't vote on the project (he only votes when there are ties), but he did advocate for its passing.

"I believed it was the right thing to do," he said. "If the detractors want to take it out on me, that's their choice." 

David Meisinger was sworn in as mayor Jan. 2. Newly-elected council member John Bellows was also sworn in, along with returning council members Ed Iago and Dick Vitelli.

Along with wrapping up the Robert Street revamp, Zanmiller said the council will face some challenges, such as the renovation of City Hall, aging infrastructure and large-scale development opportunities.

He said he hopes the council keeps in mind a key question: "How do people decide where to live?" and the many factors in the answer (crime, schools, the economic environment, housing, growth opportunities, transportation, aesthetics and recreation).

"Think long game," he said, adding the new mayor and council members should make partnerships wherever they go and keep in mind they have a "wonderful staff."

"Listen to everyone you can," he added. "Let the city's opinion form your own."

What's next

Beyond continuing his work as a Hennepin County Corrections career probation/parole officer, Zanmiller said he hasn't decided what the future holds — or if he will run for elected office again.

"Ask me in February," he said. "I may find out this is wildly liberating."

For now, he plans to work on building a house on his 40-acre farm near the Iowa border outside of Harmony, Minnesota, and get back to hunting (he went every weekend in November after the election). 

"I want to make a quarter-mile shot hunting next year," he said. "That's what my goal is."

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and Follow her at

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