West St. Paul candidates look to development, Robert Street funding

This year, there are plenty of open seats up for grabs on West St. Paul City Council. With current Mayor Jenny Halverson and council members Ed Iago and John Bellows not running for re-election, there will likely be some new faces as well as a new seating arraignment behind the dais come January.

Council members Anthony Fernandez and Dave Napier are running for the mayor’s seat, while John Justen and Jim Probst are looking to take over Iago’s Ward 2 seat.

Wendy Berry will face Dave Meisinger for Bellows’ Ward 3 seat, while council member Dick Vitelli is running unopposed to retain his Ward 1 seat.

 

Mayor

Anthony Fernandez, 39, is the owner-broker of Anthony James Real Estate. He is currently serving out his first term as a council member.

Fernandez said if elected as mayor, he would bring his experience as a small business owner, current council member, former planning commission member in West St. Paul and St. Paul, ability to network with other communities and common-sense problem solving to the job. 

Fernandez said he is running for mayor because, as a current council member, he has “noticed a lack of attention to detail on day-to-day city operations.”

“We have let our economic development flounder as other communities are growing. We need [a] mayor who has a plan and is constantly advocating for the city. I have detailed my five-point plan on my website: www.VoteFernandez.com.,” he said. 

Two challenges facing the city include economic sustainability and the expansion of the tax base.

Fernandez said in order to add amenities to the community, the city and council need to strive toward expansion of the tax base.

“We must focus on revitalization and rebranding of the city in order to continue to grow,” he said.

If elected, Fernandez said he would prioritize promoting economic development, encourage housing revitalization, recognize diversity, establish a healthy and safe community initiative, and open lines of communication.

 

Dave Napier, 56, works as an HVAC service manager for MSP Plumbing Heating Air and is married to Suzie. He is currently serving his second term as a council member and is a graduate of Henry Sibley High School.

Napier said he has community experience over 20 years through a range of local nonprofit community organizations and has served on a variety of city committees. 

He has worked at Dodge Nature Center for over 38 years, and has attended several events hosted by the National League of Cities and the League of Minnesota Cities on topics such as economic development, infrastructure, public safety and more.

“I am open and honest and have an excellent track record of bringing people together to achieve common goals,” he said.

Napier said if elected as mayor, he would provide strong leadership to keep the city moving forward, saying the “time to bring strength and stability is now.” He added his lifelong engagement in the community and time on the council has enabled him to know what makes West St. Paul special.

“As mayor, it will be my job to inspire the council and community to unite and achieve our common goals ... Together, we can make WSP even more special,” Napier said.

He said the challenges facing the city include strong leadership from all council members. He added the council would work together as a team to move the city forward through things identified in the community and council planning process. He said he would implement council training, strategic planning and community forums “that will help us grow and lead together as one community.”

Other challenges include the city’s budget, economic development and public safety.

If elected, Napier said he would work to establish a clearly defined process for filling vacancies on commissions and committees.

Other areas he would prioritize include public safety, rebuilding the city’s deteriorating roads and sidewalks, “which will better reflect the quality of our city,” and economic development. Napier added he is fully in support of the River-to-River Greenway.

 

Ward 1

Dick Vitelli, 68, is a retired IBEW Union Electrician who lives in the city with his wife Shelia. Vitelli has an associate’s degree in electricity from St. Paul Technical College. He has served on the council for 19 years.

When asked what skills or experience he brings to elected office, Vitelli said “my life experience.”

Vitelli, who is running unopposed, said he enjoys the job and “this [city] has been my home.”

He said a challenge facing the city is finding money to keep moving it forward. Vitelli said the state did not live up to its obligation in funding the rebuild of Robert Street, which is also State Highway 952. 

“Therefore West St. Paul tax payers are picking up more than we should. This burden has made future West St. Paul projects more difficult to pay for. We need to continue our effort to engage the Legislature to correct this situation,” he said.

Assuming he’s elected to another term, Vitelli said he will prioritize receiving additional aid from the Legislature to correct “the shortfall of funding” for the Robert Street project.

 

Ward 2

John Justen, 45, is the CEO of Eclipse Music and is married to Kali Freeman. He has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and attended Carleton College and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. 

Justen said he would bring his experience as a small business owner and “excellent math/budgetary/accounting skills” to the council, and be a clear communicator and empathetic listener.

Justen said he is running for the council because he believes in the city and loves it.

“I want to bring decorum to the council chambers, and focus on community engagement, walkability/bikeability/accessibility, and being an ambassador to other high-value independent small businesses that are either already here, or are considering calling West St. Paul home,” he said, adding he wants to work toward retooling the way public amenities are assessed.

Justen said the primary challenge facing the city is earning back the respect of citizens “after a year of embarrassing and shameful events within the current council.” He added he’s overjoyed citizens are making their voices heard and are paying attention.

“We need to take advantage of this momentum, listen to our residents, and make every effort to engage our entire community — especially those who are not already at the table,” Justen said.

If elected, he said he wants to capitalize on the city’s investment in Robert Street by working to find and support forward-looking developers and independent businesses. For this to happen, he said a more progressive approach to development is needed. 

He added amenities like the River-to-River Greenway bike tunnel, sidewalks and increased accessibility for residents will promote growth. 

“Studies show that a strong focus on walkability and bikeability attracts new residents and leads to increased economic development,” Justen said. “We have the opportunity, let’s seize it.”

 

Jim Probst, 58, is a full-time manger for SRSBA and married to his wife Pamela. He is a member of the South Robert Street Business Association Board of Directors, president of the West St. Paul Kiwanis Club, a key club adviser at Henry Sibley High School, part of the West St. Paul Charter Commission and works with the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon committee. 

“I am a believer in service to our community, from working with youth at Henry Sibley each week, being involved with two chambers of commerce and three other business groups, or even flipping pancakes twice a year with the Kiwanis Club, service is a big part of my life,” Probst said.

He said he knows the council is having problem communicating and getting things accomplished, pointing out he could either sit back and talk about the problems or get involved and be part of the solution.

“So at the age of 58 I find myself running for office for the first time in my life to help West St. Paul become a better community for all who live here,” Probst said.

He said there are several challenges facing the city, from property taxes going up 10 percent each of the last three years to how to move forward with several major construction projects involving public land while maintaining the high quality of the fire and police departments. 

Probst said his priority if elected is to expand the tax base by attracting as many quality businesses to West St. Paul and Robert Street as possible.

“We have spent 30 million dollars in making Robert Street beautiful, now is the time to sell it,” Probst said.

 

Ward 3

Wendy Berry, 40, is an human resources representative in employee relations for Fairview Health. She is married to Amelia, and has a bachelor’s degree in industrial/organizational psychology from Metropolitan State University.

Berry said the skills she would bring to the council include leadership in changing and complex environments, more than 10 years in human resources, project management and planning, teamwork on a professional level with diverse populations and policy development and review. 

“I’m running to make sure the residents of West St. Paul feel confident that they have a voice, receive transparent communication about what’s going on in their city and truly feel like they’re represented,” she said.

Berry said that as the community continues to grow, she wants to ensure things are done right the first time. She said it’s time for new leadership in the city that reflects the people who live there. 

“Our citizens are passionate about making West St. Paul an amazing place to live and do business,” said Berry. “I will work with them to meet our collective goals.”

She said the city has to continue paying down the debt for Robert Street and continue maintaining the rest of its streets, while making sure residents aren’t continually impacted by that financial burden. New businesses need to be drawn in to increase the tax base, and the walkability and bikeability of the city need to be enhanced.  

“As soon as the new city council members are in their chairs, the first thing we have to tackle is building a professional level of respect and decision-making in order to get things done,” Berry said. “Some current council members have lacked those skills and created unnecessary discord and delays in moving things forward.”

Once that is done, Berry said other issues can be tackled, like attracting new businesses, addressing debt and how the council can continue to make West St. Paul a vibrant community that is strong and engages its residents. 

 

Dave Meisinger, 51, has a bachelor’s degree in construction management from Minnesota State Mankato. He is the owner/operator of D.T. Meisinger Development Inc. 

Meisinger served two non-consecutive terms as mayor of West St. Paul and twice served as a council member. He said he has experience in economic development as a past two-time president of the West St. Paul Economic Development Authority, and added he has 15 years of experience as a residential/commercial real estate agent in the city, 29 years of business/management experience and experience as the past president of the West St. Paul Charter Commission.

“I’m running for council because I think the city council lacks experienced leadership. Without it, we will continue to spin our wheels and miss out on the redevelopment success that other first-ring suburbs around town are currently experiencing,” he said, adding without that redevelopment success, the tax burden will continue to hinder growth and public safety. 

He said that once a “‘reasonable’ budget that addressed the city’s needs, can be established, the council can start making reasonable decisions.”

Meisinger said the top challenge facing the city is controlling the always-increasing tax burden. He said the Robert Street Project put the city into more than $27 million of debt, which has caused not only double-digit levy increases but also idled the redevelopment of the city. This project also siphoned off money from the general fund, which has kept police and fire from sufficiently addressing their need to serve and protect residents.

If elected to the council, Meisinger said addressing the tax burden would be his top priority. He said his business, management and city government experience would allow him to make the tough financial decisions needed to move the city forward.

“Make no mistake about it,” Meisinger said, “the city is a business and we need leaders who have experience and the ability to run it like a business.”

 

Election Day is Nov. 6. To find your polling place visit www.pollfinder.sos.state.mn.us.

 

-Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienws.com

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