The word “village” springs to the lips of St. Anthony residents and city leaders alike when they speak of their community.
The treasured moniker is braided into the city’s logo and mission statement, an emphatic nod to what many describe as the first-ring suburb’s quiet charm.
But in recent years, this “village” of 8,600 has been at the epicenter of disquieting controversies, rocked by widespread scrutiny in the wake of the 2016 shooting death of Philando Castile at the hands of a now-former St. Anthony police officer.
Protests, vigils and calls for resignations at City Hall also arose after the suburb’s only mobile home park was sold last year for redevelopment, displacing nearly 100 households and energizing debates about affordable housing. And in 2014, St. Anthony found itself staring down a federal civil rights lawsuit after initially rejecting an Islamic center.
The sharp aftershocks from these controversies have come into focus in the contest for two City Council seats, with six candidates, including two incumbents, jockeying for the positions in the Nov. 7 election. The five-member council will also see a third seat filled in the coming months, following the August resignation of Bonnie Brever.
Challengers to incumbents Randy Stille and Jan Jenson say a shake-up is necessary to move forward and bridge the divides among some St. Anthony “villagers.”
“We have a City Council that is very well-intentioned,” candidate Dave Colling said at a recent event. “But good intentions aren’t going to solve the issues facing a modern, 21st century city. We need new leadership.”
It didn’t take long for race and policing to come up during a recent forum for City Council hopefuls hosted by the St. Anthony Area Chamber of Commerce. About 100 people crowded into City Hall, lining the walls to hear what candidates had to say.
Incumbents Stille and Jenson pointed to the steps the city has taken to promote racial equity and review policing practices, from participating in the Government Alliance on Race and Equity to seeking a federal assessment of its police department.
Jenson, who has been on the council since 2009, stressed the city’s need to continue “a strong dialogue that empathizes with one another.”
Glimmers of city pride showed through during the forum. Most of the candidates applauded St. Anthony’s schools, its environmental practices and the quick action it took to eliminate a recently detected groundwater contaminant.
City leaders have also received praise for their rejection last month of the 712-unit project pitched to redevelop the Lowry Grove mobile home park, which included replacement affordable housing. Neighbors say council members took seriously their concerns about building height and density by voting it down.
The intimate character of St. Anthony’s neighborhoods, residents say, is important to preserve. Several candidates agreed at the Oct. 25 forum.
“I believe continuity is important,” said Stille, who has been on the City Council since 2004. “I look forward to not changing St. Anthony but to moving it forward.”
Push for change
But challengers say there is work left to do, and new faces are needed to undertake it.
Christopher Clark, who described himself as a Libertarian, is critical of how city leaders responded to recent events in St. Anthony, saying they could have acted more quickly. He was one of several candidates who also spoke of the need for greater police transparency.
“The longer you don’t say anything, the more guilty you look,” Clark said at the forum.
The suburb’s image, some contend, has suffered among both residents and outsiders.
“It’s seen as basically a racist community,” candidate Thomas Randle, who is black, said in an interview Friday. “I think there may be pockets of [racism], but I don’t believe it’s the community as a whole,” Randle said.
Several City Council hopefuls are riding a surge of grass roots activism that followed Castile’s death. The closure of Lowry Grove also has become a rallying point.
“St. Anthony would really benefit from spending some time on proactive policies regarding affordable housing,” candidate Nancy Robinett said at the forum.
Like some of her opponents, Robinett said the Castile shooting, then the displaced Lowry Grove families, have fueled her civic engagement.
In recent weeks, candidates have knocked on doors and carpeted St. Anthony yards with campaign signs, leaving the city’s hotly debated leadership in the hands of voters.
But more remains in flux beyond the November ballot, with a third seat factoring into possible shifts in the five-member council. City staff say the future of that seat — and whether it will be filled by appointment or special election — remains unclear.
The next scheduled council meeting won’t occur until Nov. 14 — a week after voters decide the fate of the other two seats.