After more than three decades in elected office, Janice Rettman took the microphone near the end of her final Ramsey County Board meeting last week.

She urged her colleagues to be transparent, to keep their debate public and to always remember the concerns of residents who can't attend or don't speak up at county meetings.

"Democracy depends on spirited debate," she said. "I know I frustrated many of you in this room because I asked for all the details. It was critical for me to have these discussions in the open."

Rettman, a County Board member since 1997 who served on the St. Paul City Council for nearly 12 years before that, was defeated in November by Trista MatasCastillo in her bid for a sixth term representing an area that includes St. Paul's North End, Frogtown and Como neighborhoods as well as Falcon Heights.

"I have had the most extreme personal privilege to represent the people of the area I love," said Rettman, who never forgot her Texas roots as a "nondescript dirt-poor kid" with a cleaning job that she worked to pay for lunch.

Rettman took a job out of college with what is now AmeriCorps VISTA and was assigned to Iowa, helping to run housing and other service programs in American Indian settlements. From there she went to St. Paul to direct the city's housing information office, where she worked until running for the City Council in the 1980s.

Rettman often served as the County Board's contrarian and found herself many times on the losing end of a 6-1 vote. She was a fierce advocate for affordable housing and an almost certain vote against measures that would increase property taxes.

She'll be a missed voice on the County Board for many in the North End, said Linda Jungwirth, a lifelong resident who worked with other neighbors for more than 20 years to create the Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary.

The greenway, which runs parallel with Interstate 35E for a stretch south of Maryland Avenue, includes a regional bike trail that will connect North Enders to trails throughout the metro area and beyond once all connections are finished.

Jungwirth said that Rettman was an important supporter of the project from the start, helping to shepherd it through multiple agencies and every phase from acquisition to design.

"I am sure there are many, many things that she did for the project that we are not even aware of," Jungwirth said. "She downplays her role and seems to take more pride in what we accomplished — what the neighborhoods accomplished."

Rettman was there for the hard behind-the-scenes work but would shy away when it came time to take pictures and cut ribbons, she said.

"We have already informed her that she is still our valuable resource," Jungwirth said. "We said 'No, no, no, you're not going anywhere.' She's got the experience and we can keep her really busy."

County Board Chairman Jim McDonough said he had no doubt that Rettman will continue to find ways to serve the community. "She's done that her entire life," he said.

Rettman said she believes that residents have the responsibility to be the "heartbeat" of their neighborhoods.

"Maybe I'll not serve this chamber on this side of the table after January the 6th," Rettman said. "But serve I shall."

Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882