The St. Paul City Council selected Russel Balenger to join their ranks as an interim council member representing the city's First Ward through 2023.
Balenger, 71, will fill the seat vacated by former Council Member Dai Thao, who moved to Florida for a new job. He is the founder and director of the St. Paul-based Circle of Peace Movement, a nonprofit working to combat violence through community engagement.
"I am looking forward to the opportunity to further the work of making Ward 1 a strong and lasting example of a great place to live," Balenger said in a statement. "My life's work has led me to this role, and I will deliver for the people of my community."
Balenger was born and raised in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood, where his family owned a 16-room home that was torn down to make way for the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1950s and 1960s, he said.
According to his resume, Balenger has owned and operated an art and antique store and a catering business. He lived in Chicago and Ann Arbor, Mich., before moving back to his home in St. Paul's Summit University neighborhood.
In an interview Monday, Balenger said he plans to start listening to the residents of the First Ward and learning all he can about the council's procedures and policy work.
"I want to see where everyone else is and where I can be supportive," he said. "I've always had this interest in young people and their families. I want to make sure that there's more opportunities for youth and families. I want them to have access to jobs, recreation and education."
Balenger and his wife, Sarah, founded the Circle of Peace Movement in 2010 as their St. Paul neighborhood was seeing an uptick in youth violence. Since then, the group has hosted more than 600 meetings where people from all walks of life — incarcerated youth, police officers, judges, college students, activists and more — could share their stories and listen to others.
When asked what he considers St. Paul's most pressing challenge, Balenger said he hopes to help address public safety concerns as well as tensions between law enforcement and community members.
"I want everyone to feel comfortable talking to each other," he said. "It's pretty hard to hate someone if you have a relationship with them."
Balenger, who will be sworn in during Wednesday's City Council meeting, has said he will not run for the office next year.
Twenty qualified candidates applied for the interim position, and the council interviewed seven finalists last week.
"The council was truly humbled by the quality candidates who stepped up to fill this role, and we thank them all for their interest and effort," Council President Amy Brendmoen said in a statement. "Mr. Balenger is a respected Ward 1 resident who comes to City Hall with a wealth of experience and credibility. He is ready to serve and we are grateful for the opportunity to work with him."
The council is gearing up for conversations about St. Paul's 2023 budget after Mayor Melvin Carter reveals his proposed fiscal plan later this month. Balenger also joins the group as council members consider whether to enact a set of sweeping changes to the rent control ordinance voters approved last year.
"I know that the cost of living is going up, and I also know that we've mentored families who need places to go," Balenger said of the rent control debate, adding that he's been a landlord for many years. "I'm looking at it from all sides."