Robinett vows transparency
Nancy Robinett began her campaign for mayor of St. Anthony Village early. For weeks now, she and a handful of volunteers have been knocking on doors of homeowners and apartment dwellers, six days a week (Fridays excluded) from 5:30-8 p.m. “I wanted to get to the entire village,” she said during a recent interview.
She said she decided to become involved in St. Anthony politics after the shooting of Philando Castile and the eviction of the former Lowry Grove tenants. “I felt I could really contribute to this town that I live in,” she said. Robinett lost her bid last year to replace Jan Jenson on the City Council by two votes. Now she’s running against long-term council member Randy Stille for the mayor’s seat in the November election. Current Mayor Jerry Faust is not running.
She describes herself as a “big picture” person: “I don’t have a small-picture agenda.” She is an attorney in private practice and feels her perspective could be helpful to the city.
“When I found out the Council was violating the open meeting law [by holding meetings outside the city], I notified the Minnesota Department of Administration, and [the council] stopped the practice. I realized that the things I talked about resonated with a lot of people, so I decided to run for mayor.”
One of her primary goals as mayor is to help the city become more transparent and accountable to its citizens. “The mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis are wrestling publicly with their budget scenarios with the people and in the media,” she said. “They talk about why they want fewer police officers or more police officers. Our town needs the public body to play their role more robustly. People think about their pocketbooks first. If we could really talk about the budget … it just astonishes me that there are no discussions.
“The city’s budget goes up every year and our taxes go up every year. We need to have more engaged discussions about police, fire and public works.” She said people are being “priced out” of their homes, and said she’s heard “whispers” of tear-down projects [tearing down older homes and replacing them with bigger, fancier ones] within the city.
She noted that residents are divided on the topic of sidewalks, with long-time residents preferring no sidewalks, while newer residents would like them for the safety of their families. It’s a discussion she’d like to bring out in the open. “We want to preserve St. Anthony’s beauty, stability and charm. It’s not in the city’s best interests to say we will never change.”
The biggest issue, Robinett said, is sustainable growth within the city. “We are an inner-ring suburb in a sophisticated, major metro area. St. Anthony needs to be a player in this ecosystem.” She said the village has a nice mix of housing stock, but there are many aging homes within the city boundaries that need renovation and repairs. Similarly, she said, some of the older apartment buildings are becoming naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH).
She would also like to see land used better. She gave the Diamond 8 apartments as an example. “I’m not saying we should tear them down, but there is a lot of space between those buildings that could be better used.” She cites the city-owned property at 39th and Stinson – a former gas station — as a perfect place for an affordable housing development. “It would be the best and highest use of that property. It’s on a busline, it’s on Stinson.”
One of her goals would have the city become more proactive in dealing with developers. “The city should take the lead when a property comes up for redevelopment; don’t let the developers set the agenda.”
While door-knocking, she has found that people of color tend to live in multi-family homes while single family housing is predominantly white. “We live in a very diverse metro area,” she said. “St. Anthony needs to participate in that diversity.”
She commended the St. Anthony Police Department’s work on the Department of Justice program and said she wished Attorney General Jeff Sessions hadn’t nixed the requirement for a written report. “It’s good to memorialize things,” she said. As mayor she would encourage the police department to hire minority officers. “It won’t eliminate racial profiling, and I know it’s a small police department in a small town, but I want to encourage them in a cheerleader way.”
If elected, she would hold community dinners similar to those held in St. Cloud, where the mayor and citizens share a meal and discuss a certain topic of the evening.
Robinett is married to Jenifer McGuire, a professor of family social services at the University of Minnesota. They have a daughter, Mia, who attends St. Anthony Middle School. Robinett has three children from a previous marriage: Deborah, Mark and Karen. Deborah had a baby last January, and Grandma Nancy has made several trips to Las Vegas to see little Kaylee.
Stille sees opportunities
Randy Stille, a 16-year veteran on the St. Anthony City Council, sees opportunities ahead for the city. He hopes to help those opportunities come to fruition if he’s elected mayor in November.
One of those opportunities is the re-development of the WalMart site. (The City Council approved the preliminary plan put forth by Doran at its Sept. 10 meeting.) “We’ve tried the big boxes [retail] twice,” Stille said. “The city does not own the WalMart site. Now our patience has paid off. We’re not going to strike out. It’s good to have developer interest in the site again. We have a chance to get it right.”
“Getting it right” is one of the challenges of affordable housing, Stille said. “St. Anthony is not going to solve the world’s problems, but we can be part of the solution. We have to take into account the capacity of our schools before we develop affordable housing. We don’t have that much land available for construction. We have just two sites.”
He cites some statistics: “People need to realize where we are: 64% of our housing is affordable at 80% AMI [Area Median Income]; 16% is deeply affordable to people who make 30% AMI. Deeply affordable housing is available to only 11% metrowide. We’re doing better than the region, on a percentage basis.”
As a senior vice president at Associated Bank, he’s often put together financing packages for developers. “When I look at proposals like Doran’s, it’s not intimidating to me,” he said. “I put together financing like that all the time.”
Stille said he wants St. Anthony to be “a place people want to move to. Sixteen years ago, I campaigned on code enforcement. Now I want to make it easier for people to improve their homes.”
Stille majored in agribusiness and he loves the outdoors. Early in his time on the Council, he worked with the St. Anthony School Board to lobby Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein for funds to light the city’s ballfields. “We were short on the budget at that time,” he recalled. “With Mark’s help, we were able to expand our use of that facility beyond daylight hours.”
He’s thrilled that St. Anthony residents have willingly taken on the challenges of environmental sustainability. “The City Council put an environmental statement in its 2012 mission statement, and the town has developed a culture of environmental stewardship,” he said. “A citizens group evolved, and they figured out how to start an organics drop-off program. The city didn’t have to do it. The citizens did it. [The bins] are full all the time!” He will continue to emphasize maintaining St. Anthony’s standing as a GreenStep Level 5 community. “Land stewardship is embedded in me. I want to move that culture of responsibility for nature forward.”
He said people sometimes come to the city with ideas that are not within the city’s realm of responsibility. A mini storage facility came to mind. “We’re not equipped to handle that,” Stille said. “Nor can we afford to pay a social worker. Some things have to come from the county level.”
Stille said he takes his responsibilities as a city official seriously. “The shooting [of Philando Castile] and Lowry Grove were things we didn’t and couldn’t plan for. We [the City Council] have to be responsible to the entire city. We have to follow the laws and state statutes. Those were very emotional times, and people got upset. I had to listen to the ridicule directed at the Council. Doing the right thing at the right time is a challenge.”
He said he is proud of the St. Anthony Police Department. “I commend them for going through the Department of Justice program and making themselves better. Without the Lauderdale contract, we couldn’t afford our own police department.”
As mayor, he would try some new ways of being open and listening to citizens. One idea is to open the Council chambers at 6:30 p.m. before the meeting starts. “I’d like to meet with people more informally. Anyone who wants to come and talk can come in and not have to worry about being on camera,” he said.
He would also like to form stronger relations with St. Anthony’s faith communities. “Faith United Methodist, St. Charles, Nativity Lutheran, the Islamic Center, Elmwood. I’d like to get together with them and talk about what’s going on in the community at an interdenominational meeting, find out what they’re hearing from their members. I don’t have all the knowledge of this town. How can we work together?”
Stille and his wife, Donna, have lived in St Anthony for 30 years. She teaches third grade at Avail Academy in Blaine. Their son, Quentin, is an apartment manager for people with special needs. Their daughter, Libby, works in marketing at Lerner Publications in Minneapolis. Perhaps the most well-known member of the family is their dog, Ruby. “A lot of people in town know Ruby,” said Stille.
Below: Nancy Robinett and Randy Stille. (Provided photos)