Ramsey County Board of Commissioners candidates talk transit, affordable housing, jobs and economic development


Ramsey County District 3 covers part of the northwestern corner of the Payne-Phalen neighborhood. Ramsey County District 5 includes some of the Dayton’s Bluff and Railroad Island neighborhoods. graphic courtesy of Ramsey County

There are two competitive races for the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners out of the three districts with seats up for election on the East Side.

Incumbent Commissioner Janice Rettman is running to hold her seat in District 3, which covers part of the northwestern corner of the Payne-Phalen neighborhood, against Trista MatasCastillo.

In District 5, which covers some of the Dayton’s Bluff and Railroad Island neighborhoods, incumbent Commissioner Rafael Ortega is being challenged by James Jaeger.

In District 6, which covers the vast majority of the East Side, Commissioner Jim McDonough is running unopposed.

The Review asked the candidates via email why they are running, what skills and experiences they will bring to the office, what they believe to be the top challenges the county faces and what issues or projects they would prioritize if elected. McDonough did not respond to the Review’s questionnaire. 

 

District 3

Trista MatasCastillo, 44, lives in the the Payne-Phalen neighborhood with her husband Hector. She works full time as a strategic partnerships consultant for the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Metropolitan State University. 

She said the skillset she brings to office includes 16 years of experience in the Navy, Marine Corps and the Army National Guard, 10 years of advocacy work for affordable housing, homelessness, veterans’ programming, mental health and equity. She also said she has 10 years of experience as a lobbyist and government relations specialist, has the experience of receiving county services for a disabled child and experience as an aide to a county commissioner. 

“I believe that the County Board has the most direct impact on our day-to-day lives and therefore must be led by bold, courageous leaders who have a shared vision that benefits all our residents,” MatasCastillo said. 

She said District 3 has received little investment from the county and believes the area has many opportunities to develop businesses, create good paying jobs, to improve transit to accommodate all abilities and to rethink neighborhood design for long-term sustainability. She said District 3 has “rich culture and diversity” that are assets the county should embrace. 

She added that there are many residents who have been disenfranchised for a long time and that as someone who has accessed county services to take care of a disabled child, “I know first-hand who difficult our system is to navigate.”

“I am committed to improving the quality of life for all our residents, challenging racial or cultural bias, and helping create a path forward for all to succeed,” said MatasCastillo.

She said one of the biggest challenges she sees facing the county is a challenge many other levels of government are facing as well: “increasing numbers of people in poverty and persistent, concentrated areas of poverty.”

She said the solution to the problem is a “multi-tiered” approach of rethinking design, creating economic opportunities across the county, strengthening workforce investments and job opportunities and training. 

If elected, MatasCastillo said one issue she would prioritize is economic development — jobs, supporting businesses and supporting workforce training programs. She said in addition to facilitating large redevelopment opportunities like the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant and the West Publishing building sites, she said she also wants to make sure the Workforce Innovation Board and the Greater Metropolitan Workforce Council are connecting people with training and careers to earn a decent living.

“I will also champion efforts to better support the entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners within our District and across our County; we need to support new and expanding businesses,” she said. “Our diversity and human capital are our strength.” 

 

Janice Rettman has represented District 3 since 1997 and has a bachelor’s degree in social work. She lives near the Como neighborhood in St. Paul. 

Rettman said the skills she would bring to office include experience at multiple levels of government, the ability to listen to citizens and formulate balanced policy based on differing needs, the ability to analyze details in a $730 million budget, and the ability to connect with all people in the district regardless of race, income or culture. She said she is dedicated to public service.

“I am running to continue to be a voice for all people regardless of income or status,” Rettman said. “In doing so I will continue to make sure that there is equal access to services, and equal opportunities to be a part of the decision-making process, whether it is services, infrastructure like streets, policies, financing or new county investments or reinvestments.”

Rettman said the top challenges she sees the county facing in upcoming years are keeping property taxes down, providing the best services that meet the needs of the community at the best price, making sure the county’s return on investments benefit all members of the community, providing affordable housing throughout the county and training a workforce for the future. Rettman said she would address these problems by personally attending meetings and through door-knocking and listening to residents to ensure that she is listening and accessible when and where residents are available. 

She said there are four issues that can’t be separated when it comes to priorities and how decisions are made for projects — equity, jobs, quality affordable housing and transportation. 

She said she keeps all four in mind when it comes to decisions on creating opportunities for people to train, access and get good paying jobs; working to invest and prepare residents for available jobs; making sure that housing policy includes developing affordable housing, especially in publicly-funded development sites; and when making decisions on investments in a transportation network.

 

District 5

James Jaeger, 51, lives on St. Paul’s West Side in the Cherokee Park area and is married to his wife Kiersten. Jaeger previously worked full time as a product marketing manager at Farmers Union Industries in Redwood Falls.

Jaeger has two degrees, an associate of applied science degree in civil engineering from St. Paul College and a bachelor’s degree in marketing management from Concordia University. 

Jaeger said the skills he would bring to office if elected would be budget analysis and forecasting, business and economic development, team leadership and building, business-to-business marketing, and new product introduction, all skills he learned throughout his career of working in different industries. 

“I feel it’s time to have a fresh perspective on the county’s operations, services and overall functions,” Jaeger said of his decision to run for the county board. 

“Along with my business experience, and passion for Ramsey County, I can bring a fresh perspective needed to see continued growth for the District, County, City and region.”

Because much of District 5 is located in a “unique position” in Ramsey County, with the district made up of downtown St. Paul and surrounding neighborhoods, the “economic engine of the county,” Jaeger said that while most of the oversight of governance comes from the City of St. Paul, “that’s not to say the county doesn’t play part in the engine.”

He said from the county’s standpoint, one challenge is getting involved in incentivizing younger people to live, build and invest in the current housing stock in District 5. He also said the county should continue to collaborate with the city to create a business-friendly atmosphere for small businesses to help grow potential economic development. 

Combined with expanding transit, Jaeger said the county will be able to provide an attractive place for all generations to “live and thrive.”

If elected, Jaeger said his top three priorities will be economic development, operational efficiencies in the county budget and leadership on environmental issues. 

 

 

Rafael Ortega, 66, has served as the Ramsey County commissioner for District 5 for 24 years. He lives in downtown St. Paul and is divorced. 

Ortega attended Fordham University in New York City and the University of Minnesota and has a master’s degree in social work.

Before becoming a Ramsey County commissioner, Ortega was the executive director of Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio, better known as CLUES, which is a social services agency located in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. He said his experience leading that organization gave him a great understanding of the agencies and people who interact with the county, and that he’s been a champion for them. 

He also said his many years serving as a commissioner adds to his experience. Ortega said he has a deep understanding of health, human services, economic development and transit in the county and has worked to increase access to opportunities for Ramsey County residents. 

 Ortega said he is running for re-election because he is proud of the work he has done over the past 24 years regarding access to service, building the transit network and spearheading economic development in Ramsey County. He said he believes the county is at a critical moment on these issues. 

Ortega said the top challenges he sees the county facing in upcoming years is a shortage of qualified workers, which he hopes to help solve by improving transit to workplaces, homes and schools. Because Ramsey County is fully developed, he said there also is a challenge in being “aggressive and creative in redeveloping brownfields.” 

He said he has worked “tirelessly” to redevelop the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant and the former West Building area in downtown St. Paul, in order to create jobs and housing and to expand the county’s tax base. A final challenge Ortega sees is creating infrastructure that supports Ramsey County’s growing senior population to allow them to contribute to the county. 

If re-elected, Ortega said the project he would prioritize would be focusing “on building a regional transit system.” This includes the Riverview Transit Line from the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul to the Mall of America in Bloomington, the Gold Line from downtown St. Paul to Woodbury and the Rush Line, which would run from downtown to White Bear Lake. He added he would also continue to work on economic development and housing challenges.

 

– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto

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