A couple of summers back, I asked each of St. Paul’s City Council members to take me on a tour of their ward — drive the streets, show me the sights, point out the things you’re proud of or that need work.
All agreed except for Russ Stark. He just wanted to talk.
We met at a coffee shop and discussed life in the Fourth Ward, which takes in the Midway, St. Anthony Park and Merriam Park districts, and how he hoped to improve it. He wanted more affordable housing and jobs along University Avenue, and renewal of the commercial and transit potential of Snelling Avenue. We discussed the possible benefits of streetcars, which he saw as the next phase of transit investment, and the promise offered by new microbreweries in the ward.
That’s Stark: low-key, deliberate, thoughtful, policy-oriented. And that’s likely the style he will bring to his new job as president of the City Council.
With Council President Kathy Lantry leaving at the end of February to take up new duties as the city’s public works director, the council needs a new leader. Stark rounded up support from his colleagues. Now a resolution naming him president is ready for approval.
“There are big shoes to fill there, but I thought it would be an opportunity to continue to build a cohesive group on the council,” Stark said this week.
It’s not as dramatic a takeover as in 2004, when Lantry unseated Dan Bostrom as leader of a liberal council majority then doing battle with conservative Mayor Randy Kelly. The rise of Stark, a progressive DFLer with a background in nonprofits and community organizing, signals no such shift.
It’s not a glamorous job, nor does it pay more than the council salary of $58,491. But presidents line up the agendas, appoint committees and chair the meetings. They set the tone.
Stark also sees it as a chance to make the workings of the City Council a bit more understandable to the regular citizen. Sometimes it’s hard to know just what is being voted on, or even whether council members are voting yea or nay.
“We should try to go out of our way to be transparent in terms of how we operate,” he said. That’s Russ Stark.