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Ward 4 City Council Candidate Showcase: Mitra Jalali Nelson

The following are candidate responses to questions on topics important to Ward 4 citizens. Do you have other questions you would like to ask these candidates seeking the Saint Paul DFL endorsement? Let’s hear them in the comments!  – Executive Committee

Mitra Jalali Nelson for Ward 4 City Council

Why are you running for the Saint Paul City Council Ward 4 seat?
My name is Mitra Jalali Nelson. I’m a lifelong Minnesotan, the proud daughter of immigrants, and have devoted my life to fighting for all families to have the same opportunities as mine. I would be honored to continue this work for progress in our Ward and in our City as our next Ward 4 City Councilwoman.

Over the past ten years, I have worked as a teacher, an organizer, a legislative aide, and now as a policy and outreach director to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. The lesson I have learned from that combined decade of experience is that good ideas don’t just happen on their own; you have to organize them into reality. I believe that our next City Councilmember needs to bring this ethic with them to City Hall, and actively work to break down the barrier between residents and government to address the problems that we collectively face together.

I am also running because our Ward is changing, and our city needs capable leaders who reflect that growth and will uphold our shared commitment to equity. Saint Paul is growing rapidly, and it’s on us to ensure that every resident of our city can benefit from that growth. That’s why we need a City Council that is laser-focused on equity, and a Ward 4 City Councilmember who will bring that focus with them.

In a city that is roughly 50% people of color and 50% renters, and in a ward with the fastest-growing renter population in Saint Paul, I would bring a perspective that is missing on the Council as both a woman of color and a renter myself. The future of our city is also inextricably connected to the future of our Ward, and our ability to end opportunity gaps that persist by race, gender, class, ability, and more. I am running to lead with urgency on these issues, with a specific focus on police accountability, increasing attainable and affordable housing, and building community wealth. Together, I believe we can build a city that works for all.

I would be grateful for the opportunity to speak with you about my vision for our Ward, and to hear from you on what you think are the most important issues facing the neighborhoods we love. I’m honored to be running, and I hope to earn your vote.

My full letter, Why I’m Running, can be read here: https://www.mitranelson.com/why-im-running/.

 

What experiences or positions do you have that prepared you for this role? This could include leadership positions, political or non-political roles, community-based organizations, etc.
I am excited to bring a combined decade of experience in direct work with communities, public policy, organizing, and political leadership to this work. As a former classroom teacher of three years, I have worked closely with students, families, and teachers to address the needs and challenges of our students both in and outside of school, from creating safe and supportive school environments to ending childhood poverty and ensuring every student can be stably housed. As an organizer, I have successfully fought for increased school funding, marriage equality, and against voter suppression, and have also worked on and managed campaigns for progressive causes and candidates. As a policy aide and outreach director to Congressman Keith Ellison, I have organized briefings, worked on legislation, turned community ideas into policy proposals, and partnered with state, county, and city government to drive change in our community.

I am running to bring all of these experiences to the City Council so that we can organize our Ward for progress on the issues that we care about.

What are some examples of your experiences and accomplishments working in Ward 4 and/or Saint Paul?
I am proud to be an active DFLer in Ward 4 and have worked for years in the DFL to improve inclusion and representation within our local party units so that more people who look like me and come from my background can be reflected in our party processes as well. As a Ward 4 DFLer over the past couple of years I have worked to make turnout calls for our school board candidates as one of many dedicated volunteers, participated in GOTV efforts, and served as my precinct caucus convener at the 2017 Ward Convention.

I also believe strongly in promoting democracy and local civic engagement for progressive causes outside of the DFL in addition to it. Between late 2016 to early 2017 I helped start a non-partisan resident-driven group along with a motley crew of other motivated young progressives who live in Ward 4 and neighboring Wards of Saint Paul to help newly interested voters plug in to the mayoral and school board races happening in our city. Our group functioned as a convener to bring fellow progressive residents together, create social space for people to talk about the issues they care about, and to peer-educate people on the levels of races happening across the city and how you can get involved. We also partnered with local groups to help educate people on ranked choice voting, the caucus and convention process, and other aspects of local elections. We helped train nearly 75 people throughout the course of the election and helped provide a non-partisan/non-campaign-affiliated source of information to people newly engaged in local politics in both Ward 4 and Saint Paul.

In addition to these efforts to improve local democracy, my proudest accomplishment has been working with Ward 4 residents and Saint Paul Public Schools teachers, students, and families to pass the 2012 SPPS referendum, a $39 million annual investment in SPPS and in our kids. As an organizer for the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, I organized over 200 teachers to participate in regular phonebanks, doorknocks, and voter outreach events leading up to the election to make sure that we passed $39 million in annual funding for SPPS that pays for things like counselors, support staff, ELL teachers, and smaller class sizes. I would be proud to campaign heavily again for the upcoming referendum as a Councilmember for our Ward.

How do you plan to learn about and respond to concerns of Ward 4 residents? How will you engage with all residents, including communities of color, renters, immigrants, and young people?
A central reason that I am running is to elevate the concerns and aspirations of renters, communities of color, immigrants, and young people through direct representation on the Council. I am excited to build a new and inclusive politics for progress across our Ward that includes all of these perspectives and helps everyone in Ward 4 regardless of their background to have direct access to their Councilmember and their government.

I am also running as an organizer who believes that our next Councilperson has to act like an organizer in order to do their job well and be a dynamic voice for change at City Hall. Our community holds the necessary perspectives on and solutions for the issues facing our city, and I would like to organize forums in the community regularly before votes happen to gain as much input as possible from residents on my decisions. Not everyone can attend a public meeting in-person for any number of reasons, and I would also like to heavily utilize online strategy and organizing tools to help expand the number of opportunities Ward 4 residents have to share their voice with City Council. I would also be excited to host regular open office hours, host regular issue-based forums that proactively drive a conversation on solutions and ideas we can turn into policy, and hire an engaged and representative staff that operate on a 24-hour response turnaround period to multiply the number of avenues through which residents can reach and hear from their Councilmember. I am running for Council to be a Councilmember full-time, and to address the challenges and needs of our community in partnership with all of you. Through every means possible, I hope to work hand-in-hand with neighbors of all backgrounds toward citywide progress that brings all of us along.

 

What is your opinion on Saint Paul’s history of using tax-increment financing (TIF) districts for development projects and what is your perspective on TIF?
Tax Increment Financing can be a helpful tool to spur development in areas where neighborhoods can benefits from new investment, but we should also proactively work toward broader policy solutions that increase our overall revenues and can better sustain our growth so as not to over-extend city resources on TIF. As St. Paul continues to grow, we can use a moderate amount of TIF to serve new and existing residents, but those decisions should always be made in a way that fully leveraged private funds, carries as little risk as possible, and maximizes community benefit in the immediate and long-term. We may even need to consider a formal or informal cap on TIF investments to manage that risk citywide.

If you had $250,000 to spend in Ward 4, how would you spend it?
I would be excited to use these funds toward direct grants and loans that help homeowners and businesses make improvements to their homes or buildings. These funds could help close the gap for people lacking up-front funds and create tangible, lasting improvements for our community that everyone benefits from.

Our Ward is also helping lead the citywide work to address climate change locally and I would be excited to convene a diverse group of residents at the forefront of these issues to explore how these funds could support efforts to get to zero waste, support a community solar project in our Ward, be used to hire resident organizers who lead Ward-level resident education efforts that help teach us how we can be better stewards of our resources and more. Local investments can spur breakthrough projects that are proof points for more public investment, and I would like to dedicate some of these funds toward Ward level projects that promote sustainability.

Lastly, our Ward is an amazing place to live, but also in some areas significant disparities exist that are obscured by the overall higher quality of life and average income level that most of our residents experience. I would like to dedicate some of this funding to improving gaps in needed city services for some of our most vulnerable residents, including expanding access to food shelves, improving public transportation access for people with disabilities and mobility challenges in key areas, and other efforts to reduce these disparities locally.

 

Mayor Carter has stated that he wants to sign a law increasing minimum wage to $15 an hour by the end of this year. What is your position on this goal?
I am proud to support one fair wage for Saint Paul citywide that is $15 hour without any carveouts. I believe that this change cannot happen overnight and that every stakeholder who will be impacted by this ordinance needs the city’s support to make sure we all benefit from this policy. I look forward to working toward this goal with the Mayor, my colleagues on the Council, residents, workers, businesses, non-profits, and everyone else impacted.

 

Housing is increasingly unaffordable for too many Saint Paul families. With a growing population, prices and rents will continue to rise unless changes are made. What ideas do you have or what existing ideas (such as new housing units or broad based upzoning to allow greater density and more multi-family housing) do you support to make housing more available and affordable?
Our city’s affordable housing shortage is one of the top issues that propelled me into this race. We have 20,000 new residents in our city but just 4,000 new units of housing, and need to urgently increase the amount of affordable housing and density in our city to meet these needs. Using our land more efficiently is also better for both our tax base and the environment; density creates more demand for transportation options, which in turn create fewer emissions and improve air quality. As a city councilor, I will push for the city to explore a number of different options that allow denser, more affordable housing. Density bonuses can incentivize the addition of affordable units, reducing or eliminating parking minimums – at least in some areas where transit is already readily available – to reduce the cost of development and cost for tenants. General upzoning along major corridors can allow for more housing and jobs. Tools like inclusionary zoning can help ensure that as we grow our density, we are dedicating truly affordable and attainable units to residents to meet the affordable housing crisis of our city head-on. Changing the restrictions on building heights and other such limitations makes more room for our city to grow, too. We can also make it easier to create and maintain ADUs, streamline processes for committed individuals to become landlords, and should explore converting existing housing to multi-unit housing like quadplexes, triplexes, and duplexes.

For existing homeowners and tenants, the city can also make greater investments in rehabilitation and energy efficiency programs that help improve homes and reduce monthly costs. I’ll continue the conversations that have already begun between the city and affordable housing developers to improve the process for building more affordable units. My polling place is the Seal High Rise, one of the most well-known and successful examples of subsidized public housing for residents of all backgrounds in the city; we need to keep supporting and strengthening housing options like Seal, and I will advocate for them as such on the Council. I’ll use my experience working across all levels of government to better utilize existing resources at the city, county, state, and federal level, such as bonds and other sources of funding.

As a city councilmember, I will actively look for ways to expand our housing stock so that everyone in our city can be stably and affordably housed.

What do you want Ward 4 to know about you that you haven’t already mentioned above?

I am deeply honored to have earned the support of our Mayor Melvin Carter, Councilmember Dai Thao, Minnesota State Representative Ilhan Omar, Saint Paul School Board Chair Jon Schumacher, and Take Action Minnesota. I am also proud to have built a campaign team and cabinet that reflect who our city has been and who our city is becoming – from my staff who are all millennial leaders of color living in Saint Paul like myself, to my cabinet and network of advisors in Ward 4 who are former and current heads of district councils, labor leaders, longtime residents and more.

I am running the way that I hope to govern: by building a powerful coalition for change that represents the full range of perspectives of residents who live in our Ward; that unites us across the experiences shared by longtime residents and newer ones alike; so that our Ward and our city can address the most pressing challenges in our future, and achieve citywide progress for all of us. I would be most honored for you to become part of the movement that we are building.

Thank you for being a participant in this process. I would be honored to earn your support.

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Ward 4 City Council Candidate Showcase: Amy Ireland

 

The following are candidate responses to questions on topics important to Ward 4 citizens. Do you have other questions you would like to ask these candidates seeking the Saint Paul DFL endorsement? Let’s hear them in the comments!  – Executive Committee

 

Amy Ireland for Ward 4 City Council

Why are you running for the Saint Paul City Council Ward 4 seat?

I love St. Paul and have deep, decades-old family roots in Ward 4 – in addition to a personal history of over 14 years of grass-roots activism. The issue that prompted me to run for the Ward 4 seat on the City Council is the need for a strong community and neighborhood advocate as we invest in smart development that benefits everyone in St. Paul. Done correctly, smart development can help alleviate racial disparities in housing and income, can help underrepresented communities accumulate wealth and achieve self-sufficiency for their families, and can help increase health and reduce carbon emissions.

For example, as the Minnesota United’s soccer stadium and related development moves forward. We have a one-time opportunity to create smart development in Ward 4. With a prime location on a multi‐modal transit hub, I am an advocate for a wide range of housing options nearby – from affordable units to help alleviate the dearth of low-income housing, to market-rate housing for those who want the benefits of dense, car-free, maintenance‐free,urban living. No one should be priced out of a neighborhood that their family has lived in for generations, and home-owners who are no longer able to do the physical work of maintaining house should not be forced to leave their neighborhood, either.

I am committed to development that will increase our tax base and put an end to the double-digit property tax increases that everyone – home-owners and renters – have been experiencing for the last number of years. New development must primarily benefit the people in the community – not large corporations based outside of Minnesota. I will work to make sure locally-, minority-, and women-owned businesses are represented in that development –because that is one of the best ways for under-represented communities to grow wealth. My grandfather owned a ham and sausage company, with only one or two employees at any given time. The wealth he created was able to help pay a portion of my college education – and that of his other grandchildren as well. I am painfully aware that that type of generational wealth has not been available to African-Americans and other minorities of my generation, and am committed to working with under-represented communities to make sure everyone has the opportunity to build wealth through entrepreneurship.

In summary, I want to represent Ward 4 on the City Council because I have the deep knowledge of the people and issues in the community, along with the background of a legal education and grass‐roots activism to ensure that the inevitable development along the two major corridors of our Ward is implemented in a way that benefits everyone, and leaves no one behind.

What experiences or positions do you have that prepared you for this role? This could include leadership positions, political or non‐political roles, community‐based organizations, etc.

Over the past 20+ years, I have served in a number of leadership positions, both professionally and in the community.

Professionally, I have worked with a wide range of diverse constituencies. While a student at Macalester College, I tutored English to refugee and immigrant children at Highland Park High School and on campus. I eventually worked as the Volunteer Coordinator of the ELL tutoring program at Macalester’s Community Service Office. While studying at the University of Minnesota Law School, I worked at the Institute on Race and Poverty and served on the staff of the Journal of Law and Inequality.

I started my career working at the Minnesota Department of Human Rights drafting complaints of discrimination. When I became a Staff Attorney on the Refugee & Immigrant Program at the Advocates for Human Rights, I not only represented individuals applying for asylum in the United States, but I also provided legal training and support for over 200 volunteer attorneys who provided asylum representation on a pro bono basis. In private practice, I continued practicing immigration law, representing both individuals and corporations who wished to legally hire immigrant workers. I worked in the area of Employment law. During that time I served as President of the New Lawyers’ Division of the Minnesota / Dakotas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, and started my own law practice located in downtown St. Paul. I was then recognized by Minnesota Lawyer Magazine as an ‘Up & Coming Attorney.’ During ten years practicing law, I presented at dozens of Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminars, including a seminar on representing asylum applicants before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. After my third child was born, I began focusing more on local neighborhood issues, and currently serve as the Director of Children and Families at Hamline Church.

What are some examples of your experiences and accomplishments working in Ward 4 and/or Saint Paul?

Hamline Park Flower Garden When our neighborhood park was filled with litter and weeds in 2004, I organized a group of neighbors to dig up the compact dirt in front of the park sign, add top soil, compost and mulch and create a beautiful flower garden. The garden was recognized by the city with a ‘Silver Bloom’ award.

Hamline Midway Library Association When our neighborhood library was threatened with closure, I was a lead organizer of a group of neighbors who challenged that decision. During a community meeting with the Mayor – which he expected to be filled with Firefighters and their advocates – around 100 community members showed up to protest. Ten years later, the library is still open, and I still serve on the Hamline Midway Library Association (HMLA) board. In 2009, HMLA was recognized by the city’s ‘Neighborhood Roll Call’.

Hamline University Neighborhood Advisory Committee There has been ongoing community concern about how Hamline University intends to grow and how it maintains its residential properties. Many have been torn down or are vacant and neglected. In response, the Hamline University Neighborhood Advisory Committee was formed in order to provide more formal community input into decisions by the University. I served on that committee for two years.

Como Park Pavilion Task Force When the city convened a task force to review Requests for Proposal for the Como Park Pavilion space, I served as a volunteer on the task force.

SPROUT Garden During the summer, I help coordinate the SPROUT (organic) Garden – a project of Hamline University, Hamline Church and the Hamline Midway Elders. Hamline University student interns tend the garden and help teach children how to grow organic vegetables. Together they harvest the produce and make deliveries to the Hamline Midway Elders. Last year, the volunteers for the SPROUT Garden won the Sustainable Saint Paul Award for environmental leadership.

Hamline Elementary School

  • Fence Weaving Project – When Hamline Elementary school told me they wanted help hiring a local artist to create a colorful woven mural to beautify the school along a non-descript cyclone fence along Snelling Avenue, I wrote the first grant to provide funding for the project. The project was installed last year.
  • Community Resource Room – When the Community Resource Room at Hamline Elementary needed toiletries and winter clothing for families, I organized a collection of hats, gloves, scarves, toiletries and baby items in my faith community and delivered the items to the school.
  • Book Drive – When the school was asking for donations of gently used books so that each child could take home a book of their own choosing during parent‐teacher conferences, I organized a book drive in my faith community and delivered approximately 200 books to the school.
  • Community Brick Oven Bread Bake – When the school was looking to strengthen its relationships with neighboring businesses and institutions, I prepared a lesson plan, organized volunteers, and taught third-graders how to bake bread in the community brick oven over a period of three days. The first day we learned about different types of bread eaten in different cultures, the ingredients used in raised white bread, and how yeast works. The second day, we gathered wood for the brick oven, measured and mixed ingredients, and kneaded the dough. The third day we prepared the baking pans and the dough for baking, tasted our bread, and gave the remaining loaves to the Hamline Midway Neighbors as a ‘Thank You’ gift for volunteering as Reading Buddies in the classroom.

Hamline Midway Coalition – District Council 11 When I became concerned about the lack of community input and communication related to the Minnesota United’s soccer stadium project, I joined the board of the Hamline Midway Coalition. During the first two months, I helped create a new Community Engagement & Outreach Committee for the Council.

 

How do you plan to learn about and respond to concerns of Ward 4 residents? How will you engage with all residents, including communities of color, renters, immigrants, and young people?

The current District Council system was initially designed as a way for citizens to organize as a neighborhood and make recommendations to the City Council. Currently, volunteers with the District Councils too often feel as if their voices are being ignored. Many neighbors don’t even bother to get involved with the District Council system because they feel as if their work will be ignored. As a member of the City Council, I will work to strengthen the District Council system, and provide more consistent communication and feedback to the District Councils as a means to streamline communication and make it more effective. For the first time this winter, the Board of Directors of the seventeen district councils met in order to communicate more directly and discuss ways of becoming more inclusive. I will work to make sure this type of dialogue continues and is followed up with concrete action. I will promote equity and inclusivity initiatives, including trainings geared toward preparing people of color to serve on a variety of boards. I will also seek ways for the city to be more supportive of the District Councils – for example, centralizing certain aspects of the District Council work (i.e. payroll, insurance, web‐hosting) in order to free up staff time for work that more directly impacts the community. As part of the increased support from the city, District Councils should show their efforts to include communities of color, renters, immigrants and young people.

For example, the new Community and Engagement Committee of the Hamline Midway Coalition is reaching out to individuals living in low‐income rental‐housing units in the neighborhood, the high schools attended by teens in the neighborhood (the age requirement for voting and serving on the Board of the District Councils is 16), youth housing and outreach programs, immigrant- and minority-owned businesses in the community, and issuing personal invitations to people who belong to traditionally underrepresented groups.

My priorities in the community will include visiting each St. Paul Public School in the Ward at least once per year (including Como High School, although not technically located in the Ward), monthly visits with various immigrant-, minority-, and woman-owned business or community associations, hosting quarterly small-business community coffees, meeting with union leadership several times each year, in addition to regular meetings with the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. I also plan to rotate visits to the monthly board meetings of each of the five District Councils located in Ward 4. During these visits, my primary goal will be to listen to the individuals attending, and ask questions to increase my own understanding of the groups’ priorities and needs.

I will also keep constituents updated through a monthly e-newsletter highlighting our area schools, public service workers, and small businesses, along with explanations of certain decisions that have been reached, and upcoming events in which constituent input is especially needed.

 

What is your opinion on Saint Paul’s history of using tax‐increment financing (TIF) districts for development projects and what is your perspective on TIF?

In general, TIF has been over-utilized. TIF is damaging to our public-school system, and hinders the long-term health of our city budget. It is a tool of last resort. TIF should be used primarily in cases where the cost of environmental remediation would make urban land otherwise undevelopable.

 

If you had $250,000 to spend in Ward 4, how would you spend it?

I would use the $250,000 as matching funds to create a Local Community Growth Endowment to benefit the neighborhoods abutting the new stadium development project. The $500,000 would then be used as ‘seed’ funding with the interest generated on the Foundation funds each year being used as low- or no‐interest matching loans or grants for small businesses, non‐profits or community‐based organizations located in those neighborhoods. A detailed and transparent grant process would initially give priority to groups proposing solutions to perceived negative repercussions of stadium development (i.e. traffic‐calming measures, small‐business expansion to enable competition with new development projects) and to minority‐owned small business. Each year, I would continue to raise funds to add to the endowment, thereby increasing the amount of interest available to local small businesses, non-profits or community‐based organizations.

 

Mayor Carter has stated that he wants to sign a law increasing minimum wage to $15 an hour by the end of this year. What is your position on this goal?

I support a $15/hour living wage. I believe we need carve‐outs for qualified and verified training programs, and phased implementation for truly small, locally-owned, mom & pop, minority- and women-owned businesses.

 

Housing is increasingly unaffordable for too many Saint Paul families. With a growing population, prices and rents will continue to rise unless changes are made. What ideas do you have or what existing ideas (such as new housing units or broad based upzoning to allow greater density and more multi-family housing) do you support to make housing more available and affordable?

Ideal development takes place incrementally, in ways that complement our neighborhoods. Our tallest and highest density residential units should be reserved for areas with high‐traffic multi-modal transit hubs that connect quickly and easily to other parts of the city and allow individuals to live a car‐free lifestyle. All residential areas of the city should be opened up to smaller changes in density, such as allowing new duplexes, two-story four-plexes, and Accessory Dwelling Units. Most importantly, affordable housing should be distributed throughout the city, to prevent high concentrations of poverty and to allow individuals to have more choice over where they wish to live.

We should also re‐examine the threshold of ‘affordability.’ Sixty percent of the median income of the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), or $54,000 – the threshold income for much ‘affordable’ housing – is $10,000 higher than the median household income in St. Paul ($44,000). In other words, people who earn more than over 50% of St. Paul residents still qualify to live in many ‘affordable’ housing units. We need to work to reduce the threshold for ‘affordability’ in St. Paul and throughout the region.

Lastly, I would like to establish a task force to review the feasibility of rent control or rent support in St. Paul.

 

What do you want Ward 4 to know about you that you haven’t already mentioned above?

Often in campaigns, we don’t discuss the fundamentals of the job: listening, analyzing, building consensus, and communication. These are skills that I’ve developed both professionally and in the community over the past two decades. My legal skills provide me with the ability to read complex ordinances and statutes, understand their intended purpose, and try to avoid unintended consequences. My relationships in the community provide me with resources to affirmatively reach out and be pro-active about issues confronting the city. And, finally, I understand the importance of good communication in order to keep people informed as to what is going on and how they can have their voices truly heard. The City Council is the most personal level of government, because the decisions made by the City Council are often not abstract policy decisions. These are decisions that have a direct impact on your life, including plowing and potholes.

It is incredibly important to be thoughtful, respectful, and independent. I support and respect our Mayor, but if he proposes something that is not good for the people of Ward 4, then I will firmly, but respectfully, oppose it. I support and respect the current members of the City Council, but if they propose something that is not good for the people of Ward 4, then I will firmly, but respectfully, oppose it. As your City Councilmember, my role will be to represent and zealously advocate for the interests of the people of Ward 4.

Lastly, I am not running for office simply because “it’s time for a woman” to run, or because I have dreams of becoming a career politician. I am running because I love St. Paul. I love this community and have chosen to raise my three precious girls here. I have the historical knowledge and context to put current debates and decisions into context. I have the skills needed to write, review, and analyze and synthesize highly detailed ordinances, variances, data and planning documents. I have the temperament and heart to communicate clearly and respectfully with everyone I work with. And I have the firm conviction that the progressive change we need comes from the bottom up, not the top down.

Ward 4 City Council Candidate Showcase: Shirley Erstad

The following are candidate responses to questions on topics important to Ward 4 citizens. Do you have other questions you would like to ask these candidates seeking the Saint Paul DFL endorsement? Let’s hear them in the comments!  – Executive Committee

Shirley Erstad for Ward 4 City Council

Why are you running for the Saint Paul City Council Ward 4 seat?

I believe in a city where everyone is valued and heard and I believe in representative, inclusive government that is held accountable. I have spent my life moving beyond labels, breaking down barriers, and getting stuff done. As our Ward 4 City Council Member, I will work in collaboration to achieve results on racial equity, raise wages and reduce housing costs, build on the strength of our neighborhoods, include community voices to foster public safety, improve our parks and recreation centers, and make our city truly sustainable. I am an experienced progressive, a non-profit and community leader, and a neighborhood advocate and organizer. I believe that my vision, skills, and experience make me uniquely qualified to serve the people of Ward 4 and the City of Saint Paul.

 

What experiences or positions do you have that prepared you for this role? This could include leadership positions, political or non-political roles, community-based organizations, etc.

I have lived in Saint Paul for 25 years, raised my family here, and built my career making our city a welcoming, livable space for every person and family, regardless of background. Through a number of leadership roles within St. Paul, I have a strong understanding of how systems work and who the stakeholders are, and have built relationships within city government and the community.

I currently serve as Executive Director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of Saint Paul and Ramsey County, a non-profit organization where I’ve fought to build parks, playgrounds, and green spaces across the area and to recognize that they are economic assets as well as environmental ones. As Executive Director, I also understand strategic planning, difficult budget decisions, identifying and building leaders, and working in collaboration for the common good.

I am a founding member of Saint Paul STRONG, a grassroots community group working towards a Safe, Trust, Responsible, Open, Neighborhoods, and Generations approach to government and community work, encouraging inclusivity, transparency, and accountability.

I served on Mayor Melvin Carter’s hiring panel for the Director of Parks and Recreation. I’ve served on the Board of Directors of the Union Park District Council. I’ve worked as an advocate for inclusive and accessible parks and community spaces and participated in conversations of criminal justice on the Dickerman Park, Universally Accessible Playground at Victoria Park, Grand Rounds, and Boys Totem Town Task Forces.

I have testified at many hearings at different levels of government, including the Planning Commission and City Council. I have persistently and doggedly worked in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office, City Council, and community activists. I believe these leadership experiences right here in Saint Paul, working alongside city government, are invaluable to being able to hit the ground running as a member of the City Council.

 

What are some examples of your experiences and accomplishments working in Ward 4 and/or Saint Paul?

When my husband and I moved our family to Ward 4 twenty years ago, we quickly realized we had landed in a terrific neighborhood. Our youngest was two years old and our oldest was seven. There were thirty kids on our block. I helped organize our community block party as well as organized and hosted a progressive dinner for our neighborhood for many years. We put a bench on our boulevard and planted our front yard with native plants for pollinators. Over the past two decades, our front yard has become a gathering place, especially in the fall when the monarch butterflies are migrating. We’ve had a record fifty monarchs at once. We have two Little Free Libraries, one for everyone and one for kids. Last fall, when part of our yard needed to be dug up, I held a “Walking Garden Party” for neighbors to move plants to their yards and out of the way of the heavy equipment. These community-building experiences have helped foster a sense of belonging and connection between me, my family, and our neighbors. That’s one of the things I love best about St. Paul.

From a leadership standpoint, when I learned that our City’s Planning Commission had nine vacancies and no representation from Ward 4 while decisions were being made related to the soccer stadium, I took action. Together with other community activists, we organized and worked for eighteen months alongside then-Mayor Chris Coleman and two City Council Members to fill out Saint Paul’s thirty boards and commissions with ethnically diverse and geographically representative appointments. When he left office, Mayor Coleman highlighted these appointments as one of his proudest accomplishments.

I worked alongside City of Saint Paul leaders, staff, and other stakeholders to revise the city’s Parkland Dedication Ordinance. I helped write the resolution and amendments to the adopted policy and lobbied my position.

I wrote policy briefings and letters and testified before the Administrative Law Judge, as well as the Planning Commission and the City Council regarding the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area that is the National Park in Ward 4 and greater St. Paul. I activated current and past elected officials at all levels of government for this work, including national leaders.

I have been an active participant at both the Ramsey County Parks and Recreation Commission and the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Commission. Both have jurisdiction within the City of St. Paul.

I have been elected to the Union Park District Council Board of Directors three times and have served on the Executive Committee and the Environment and Parks Committee.

 

How do you plan to learn about and respond to concerns of Ward 4 residents? How will you engage with all residents, including communities of color, renters, immigrants, and young people?

A City Council Member’s most important job is to listen and respond to her constituents. I believe the elected official is the employee and the public is the employer. I believe representative government is just what it says. My first job out of college was with a United States Senator. He taught me that constituent services are Job Number One. “You dance with those that brung ya” was his motto and it was ingrained in me.

If elected, I will hold regular coffee hours with my neighbors, just as I have as a candidate. I will be visible at all types of community events and will be a regular presence at District Council meetings. After all, we are not just fellow citizens, we are neighbors and WE ARE the City. I will work hard every day to make sure my neighbors’ voices are heard at City Hall.

I will hold regular office hours, both at City Hall and in Ward 4. I will be a full-time Council Member in a part-time job. My constituents will know who I am, what I look like, where to find me, and how to reach me.

I will communicate with my constituents in person and also via technology. One of the issues I’ve been working on is to keep the city’s website updated. The website is the portal to our city and it’s important that it is user friendly and up-to-date.

I will continue my community-building activities that are fundamental to who I am. For instance, in January, I helped organize a multi-cultural community dinner with citizens on the East Side of St. Paul, working to build bridges across our city and make new immigrants feel welcome in their new home.

I have a proven record of leadership in adding diversity in important roles. When I took my job, the Board of Directors had zero people of color. I recruited and encouraged new voices to join the conversation, changing that zero percent representation of people of color to twenty-five percent representation on the Board.

As a mother of three daughters in their 20s, I regularly have young people around me. My family has helped me and worked hard on this campaign to build a broad coalition of supporters, volunteers, and donors. Our campaign consists of people of color, people with disabilities, people at all income levels, renters and homeowners, business people and philanthropists, new immigrants and folks whose great-great-grandparents immigrated here, you name it. I work to move beyond labels and break down barriers. My team consists of talented, smart, and skilled individuals that would continue to help me as I transition from a candidate engaged with her community to a Council Member in touch with her constituents.

 

What is your opinion on Saint Paul’s history of using tax-increment financing (TIF) districts for development projects and what is your perspective on TIF?

Too often, tax incentives known as Tax Increment Financing (TIF) are used to benefit already big companies, not middle- and working-class families here in St. Paul. We’re going to attract businesses to our city by having great schools, parks, housing, and public transportation, not because we offer race-to-the-bottom tax incentives to relocate here. If St. Paul is going to use TIF, we should make sure it’s being used to encourage small and minority-owned businesses, truly affordable housing, young entrepreneurs, and environmentally-friendly projects.

One of the issues I’m bringing to the forefront in this campaign is that when the St. Paul City Council approves TIF projects, tax money is not only diverted from tax rolls in St. Paul but also from the School District and Ramsey County tax rolls. The St. Paul School Board doesn’t get a vote nor does the Ramsey County Commission. All the power is with the St. Paul City Council. As the City Council wields that power, I believe it is absolutely imperative that the decisions are open, transparent, inclusive, and accountable so that citizens know the full extent of what those decisions mean. For instance, in 2017, the money diverted from the School District for the debt service on TIF districts was $9 million dollars.

Another complication in over-using TIF is that markets want a level playing field. TIF was first used in California, where it has since fallen out of favor, because its overuse has roundly been recognized as an unsustainable way to finance projects. It is supposed to follow the “But For” test, that is, “But for the use of TIF, this project would otherwise not happen.” When TIF is not used judiciously but rather is overused, it creates a market where almost all projects proposed expect TIF incentives because that’s what the project across the street or down the block received.

What to do about TIF? When you’ve dug yourself into a hole…Stop Digging!

  • Learn discipline initially intended with TIF:
  • Follow “but for” requirements.
  • Maintain district lives from 10 to 15 years, and only pay reasonable interest rates.
  • Require assessment agreements.
  • Require TIF grants to be spent on true public improvements for infrastructure.
  • Require developer to follow through on promises i.e. permanent jobs, amenities, parking etc.
  • Answer the question, will this TIF grant hurt existing projects and small businesses?
  • Think about the long-term view and whether the TIF conflicts with long-term goals.
  • Pay down TIF bonds. Don’t spend existing TIF district proceeds, that may be generated, on other things or even worse, create new TIF projects. These proceeds should go back to the General fund. Don’t roll over and start the districts all over again.
  • Provide public review of financial projections and reports on proposed TIF projects.
  • Assure that taxes paid by development covers all the new service expenses by reducing the increment.
  • Establish a Review Board at the state level. This Board will comprise professional analysts that can determine the “but for” test as well as the viability of projects.

 

If you had $250,000 to spend in Ward 4, how would you spend it?

Ironically, this is the same amount of money the City proposed to spend when I testified before the City Council last fall. MUSC Holdings, LLC, the group building the soccer stadium, had already benefited from $22 million in TIF for infrastructure. My testimony was regarding the Parkland Dedication agreement for the project. I asked why, given the millions of public dollars already directed to this project, the City was paying an additional $250,000 to plant trees in the privately-owned public space that MUSC Holdings, LLC would get to program 363 days a year and the city can program “for free” the other two days. To “program” can mean to hold events that generate income, which, in effect, means the City paid to beautify the park for which MUSC Holdings, LLC can generate income for itself 363 days a year, if it so chooses. I suggest this was a case of misplaced priorities on where the City should spend $250,000 when, instead, MUSC Holdings, LLC could have afforded to plant the trees.

Nevertheless, if given the opportunity to spend $250,000 any way I like for Ward 4, I would use it to make progress on some of the most pressing issues facing our neighborhoods like affordable housing and transportation. Micro-grants often have huge impacts and I would use it as seed money to generate creative and innovative ideas and projects. Many people have ideas but just need a small boost to make a difference in our community.

 

Mayor Carter has stated that he wants to sign a law increasing minimum wage to $15 an hour by the end of this year. What is your position on this goal?

I support this goal. We need to work towards a $15 minimum wage, without a tip penalty, so that people are making a fair wage for their hard work. Over 40% of our city’s residents live within 185% of the federal poverty line (that’s about $45,000 for a family of four), and that number continues to grow. We cannot solve this problem by cutting taxes on businesses and hoping that the benefits trickle down to ordinary families. Rather, we need to establish a living wage, ideally indexed to inflation, coupled with strong labor laws and a commitment to helping small businesses, in order to re-establish community wealth. And, we must continually recognize that minimum wage disproportionately affects women and people of color.

 

Housing is increasingly unaffordable for too many Saint Paul families. With a growing population, prices and rents will continue to rise unless changes are made. What ideas do you have or what existing ideas (such as new housing units or broad based upzoning to allow greater density and more multi-family housing) do you support to make housing more available and affordable?

We have an affordable housing crisis in the Twin Cities. The average household in St. Paul is spending 43% of its income on housing and transportation. Our average housing unit rent in the Twin Cities continues to climb, there is nearly a 0% vacancy rate for 3-bedroom family rental property, and we suffer from a lack of affordable starter homes for those who hope to move from renting to owning.

Tackling our affordable housing crisis in St. Paul is no simple task and will require a multifaceted approach. One, we must first seek to do no harm and avoid removing existing affordable housing stock. Two, rehabilitating existing affordable housing stock can produce co-benefits of improved housing opportunities for low- and middle-income families and strengthen the tax base. Three, use the development of the Ford plant site and other available sites to build new affordable housing units. Four, seek creative solutions like creating Community Land Trusts as another mechanism for making affordable homeownership available to people with low incomes, and preserving a stock of affordable housing in a neighborhood by removing land from the speculative real-estate market. Five, we need to address the underlying factors that have made it hard for families to raise their wages and build wealth. We can tackle this by raising the minimum wage, addressing income disparities across communities, and working to reduce college debt.

 

What do you want Ward 4 to know about you that you haven’t already mentioned above?

In addition to being a candidate, a leader, a volunteer, a mentor, a neighborhood activist and organizer, I’m also a mom and have been married to my husband, Rich, for thirty years. We have three bilingual daughters who attended Saint Paul Public Schools. I would be deeply honored and proud to receive the DFL endorsement for our Ward 4 City Council seat.

 

Ward 4 Candidate Meet & Greet

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Ahead of the Ward 4 Endorsing Convention the Saint Paul DFL is holding a candidate meet & greet. Come meet the three candidates seeking the DFL endorsement and get your questions answered ahead of the Convention. Monday we will also get a chance to thank former Councilmember Russ Stark for his work these past 10 years serving Ward 4. Join us for this fun and important night!

Ward 4 Meet & Greet
Monday, April 16
5:00-PM 7:00PM
Turf Club
1601 University Ave W.

5PM- Doors Open
5:45PM- Program

Check out the Facebook Event.

Ward 4 Special Endorsing Convention

The Saint Paul DFL Central Committee has set the date for an Endorsing Convention for the Ward 4 City Council Special Election. The Convention will be Saturday, April 28th at Murray Junior High School beginning at 9AM. The sole business of the convention shall be to consider endorsing a candidate in the Ward 4 City Council Special Election.

The Chair of the Saint Paul DFL shall appoint conveners and members for any pre-convention committees, including Credentials and Rules. Conveners and members shall be appointed by March 17th and given 10 days notice of any pre-convention committee meetings.

More information soon. Questions? Please email Saint Paul DFL Chair, Libby Kantner.

Special Ward 4 Endorsing Convention

St. Paul City Council Member Russ Stark is stepping down, will take environmental advocacy position in Mayor Melvin Carter’s office. Ward 4 seat to be filled by 7-month special appointment, followed by special election in August.

The St Paul DFL will set the date for the Special Ward 4 Endorsing Convention at our Feb. 13 Central Committee Mtg.

Ward 4 Special Endorsing Convention

On January 24, 2018 Ward 4 Councilmember Russ Stark announced that he will be stepping down from his position to take a job in Mayor Carter’s office.  First and foremost, the Saint Paul DFL would like to thank Councilmember Stark for his ten years of service to the residents of Ward 4 and the city of Saint Paul. His collaborative, calm leadership will be missed on the council.

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Councilmember Stark

A special election for the Ward 4 Council Seat will be held later in 2018. The Saint Paul DFL will be holding a special endorsing convention to endorse a candidate. The date for that convention will be set Tuesday, February 13th at 6PM the Saint Paul DFL Central Committee Meeting (held at the Minnesota DFL Headquaters- 255 Plato Blvd). At this meeting pre-convention committees will also be set. This meeting is open to the public. This is in accordance with the Saint Paul DFL Constitution:

Article IV:

Section 1: The Saint Paul DFL Central Committee shall issue the Call for all special endorsing commissions (conventions) and caucuses provided for in this Constitution. 

Additionally, in accordance with the constitution, the delegates and alternates for the convention will be those elected to the last ward convention in 2017. Anyone who moved out of the ward will not be eligible. Any person elected a delegate or alternate elected in another St. Paul ward who moved to a precinct in this ward, will be listed as the lowest ranked alternate in their new precinct.

Check back after February 13th for more details or email Libby Kantner with questions.