West St. Paul Reader exists thanks to the generous support of our members.
Local government is where all the action happens, but it can be difficult to navigate. So we’re sharing a beginner’s guide to West St. Paul City Council to help residents participate in local government.
We also share previews and recaps of each meeting to help keep residents informed.
Here’s what we’re going to cover:
- Who Makes up City Council? – Mayor, council members, terms and more.
- Meetings – A breakdown of the types of meetings, when and where they’re held, the format of meetings, as well as how to watch and participate.
- Form of Government – The organizational structure that determines who has power to do what.
- Tips for Attending City Council – Some tips for attending so you can get the most out of the experience.
Who Makes up City Council?
West St. Paul City Council is made up of seven members—two city council members representing each of three wards and the mayor.
Council members serve four-year terms and the mayor serves a two-year term.
You can check the city’s interactive ward map to see which ward you are in.
Current West St. Paul City Council:
- Mayor: Dave Napier
- Ward 1: Dick Vitelli (elected 2018)
- Ward 1: Julie Eastman (elected 2020)
- Ward 2: John Justen (elected 2018)
- Ward 2: Robyn Gulley (elected 2020)
- Ward 3: Wendy Berry (elected 2018)
- Ward 3: Lisa Eng-Sarne (elected 2020)
Elections happen in even-numbered years with one council member from each ward and the mayor on the ballot.
West St. Paul City Council meetings actually include several different types of meetings:
- Regular council meetings – These are the official meetings where votes are taken and follow the formal Robert’s Rules of Order.
- Open Council Work Sessions (OCWS) – These are unofficial meetings that are more relaxed and free flowing. While official action can only happen during regular meetings, the decisions are often made during OCWS.
- Economic Development Authority (EDA) – This is a separate body made up of all the council members and the mayor that drives economic development in West St. Paul. Like regular council meetings, these are formal, official meetings.
- EDA work session – This is the OCWS for EDA—an unofficial meeting where upcoming agenda items are discussed and set.
Meeting agendas are released online several days before the meeting (usually on Fridays). You can also sign up to be notified via email or text when agendas become available. Agendas not only list what topics will be covered, but also include informational packets detailing specifics about a given issue (which can make for a lot of reading). Archived agendas can be a helpful resource.
We share a City Council preview highlighting agenda items before each meeting.
City council generally meets on the second and fourth Mondays of every month (with the exception of the fourth Monday in December, which they usually take off).
- Regular Council meetings start at 6:30 p.m.
- OCWS start times can vary, but they’re usually between 5 and 6 p.m. (the agenda will note the start time).
- EDA meetings are generally held after council meetings on the fourth Monday, though that can vary.
- EDA work sessions are held as needed, generally before or after regular council meetings.
City council meets at city hall at 1616 Humboldt Ave, the building across from Marthaler Park that’s shared with the police and South Metro Fire. Meetings are held in the council chambers. Enter the double glass doors at the main entrance and proceed straight to the back with a slight jog to the left.
Regular council meetings follow a consistent format:
- First, the mayor calls the meeting to order, the city clerk takes attendance, and the council approves the night’s agenda (this is important, because generally the council can’t take up any issue they want to—it has to be on the agenda so the public is informed about what business they’re tackling). The agenda is usually set by the city manager with input from the mayor and council through the OCWS.
- Then there’s an opportunity for public input through citizen comments (more on how that works below) and council comments where the council members have a platform to speak.
- Next comes any proclamations, recognitions, and presentations.
- Then the council approves their consent agenda. This is a list of routine items that need to be approved but are handled as one motion and not discussed individually. This often includes licenses, contracts with vendors, reports, etc.
- Then comes the rest of the business, usually public meetings, new business, and any old business.
Be aware that items often come up for discussion at multiple meetings. An ordinance change, for example, requires a first reading, a second reading, and a public hearing (usually the second reading and public hearing happen at the same meeting). Items often come up in an OCWS before they’re on the official agenda for the regular meeting. Sometimes a development project will include approvals before city council as well as the EDA. Each instance is a step in the process and an opportunity for the public to weigh in through comments or by contacting their representatives.
How to Watch:
All city council and EDA meetings are open to the public and anyone is welcome to attend (except for closed sessions, as required by law).
All meetings are televised live by Town Square Television online and on cable TV. Meetings are rebroadcast on cable and available to stream online (the archive generally includes two years worth of meetings).
How to Participate:
While anyone can attend city council meetings, participation options are limited. Generally, the best way to share your input is to contact city council members directly. During a regular meeting, there are potentially three ways to participate:
1. Citizen comments: Every regular meeting includes a citizen comments period, usually near the beginning of the meeting. This is the First Amendment in action.
- Who: Anyone is welcome to speak. There is no residency or age requirement. People are asked to identify themselves by giving their name and address/ward.
- Time limit?: There’s generally not a time limit for public comments, though it’s at the mayor’s discretion.
- Topic: Speakers can address anything—with the exception of any topic on that night’s agenda. This is a somewhat confusing prohibition that seems designed to minimize lengthy comment on pressing issues. If you have a concern about an item on the agenda, you should contact city council members directly. (The exception to the exception: If an item on the agenda has a public hearing, you can speak during the public hearing, just not during citizen comments.)
- How: While there is usually a sign up sheet for public comments (to help the city clerk prepare the meeting minutes and for any follow up), it’s not required and hasn’t generally been followed. People wanting to speak just approach the podium, sometimes lining up and other times remaining seated until the previous person is finished.
- Response: Traditionally, the council doesn’t respond to public comments—so it’s normal for them to have no response. It’s often an intentional way to keep from engaging or escalating an issue. In practice though, council will frequently refer concerns to city staff for follow up.
2. Public hearings: Some council actions, such as an ordinance change or tax levy, require a public hearing by law. This is an advertised opportunity for the public to give input on a specific topic (and is limited to the topic at hand). Speakers are usually asked to give their name and address/ward. There’s usually not a time limit, though one can be imposed by the mayor.
3. As invited: Since the mayor runs the meeting, they can invite anyone to share testimony at their discretion. This is rare, but it does happen.
Since COVID-19, a call-in option has been available for citizen comments and sometimes for public hearings (at the mayor’s discretion). Note there is a delay between the meeting and the live broadcast, so there’s often a pause while the mayor waits and gives people an opportunity to call in. If you do call in, it’s important to turn down your TV or computer volume to minimize feedback.
Other meetings: There are no citizen comments or public hearings during work sessions, though the mayor can invite input at their discretion. EDA meetings don’t generally have citizen comments, though there can be public hearings.
Form of Government
It’s also helpful to understand what kind of government West St. Paul has and who has the power to do what. West St. Paul is a charter city, which means our power comes from our charter and not the state legislature. That means we have more power to change how our city operates.
Next, West St. Paul is led by a city manager. This means the city manager runs the city, not the mayor. This is different from our more high profile neighbors, St. Paul and Minneapolis. City council gives the city manager direction and has the power to fire the city manager (that’s where electoral accountability comes in). The city manager can do what they want, but if the city council doesn’t approve, it won’t be long before the city manager is out of a job. West St. Paul hired current City Manager Nate Burkett in 2021.
Finally, West St. Paul has what’s known as a weak mayor system. While the mayor runs the meetings and has other powers, they don’t get to vote except in special circumstances. They can break ties and have veto power. This means the mayor doesn’t have unilateral power and needs to build coalitions among council members.
While the city council has a lot of power, especially over local issues, it’s helpful to know there are limitations. Federal, state, and county laws and rules as well as court precedent often limit what they can do. For example, the city council may need to approve plans for a new building, but they can’t reject the plans simply because they don’t like the business. There are a lot of intricacies involved and it can get complicated.
Tips for Attending City Council
- Be early: Arrive a few minutes early. If you have questions or aren’t sure where to go or what to do, it can be awkward if the meeting has already started (and they usually start on time).
- Say hello: The audience is usually small, so introduce yourself and say hello to others. There are often regulars who frequently attend meetings and are great folks to ask if you have questions about what’s going on. (I’m usually sitting in the back at the press table, so come say hello.) Before or after the meeting is a good time to introduce yourself to the city council members who represent your ward. Whether you voted for them or not, it’s good for elected officials to know the people they represent are paying attention.
- Public speaking: If you’re speaking, adjust the microphone and speak slowly and clearly. We want to hear what you have to say! Public speaking can be intimidating, so it helps to write down what you want to say ahead of time. Keep it short and to the point.
- When to leave: You don’t have to attend the entire meeting. If you have a comment about the local playground for citizen comments, you’re not required to sit through the lengthy public hearing on a road reconstruction. The audience will often thin out after the initial comments and public recognitions. But feel free to stick around—it can be very educational!
- More than one meeting: If you’re attending the regular meeting, be aware that there’s likely an OCWS before the regular meeting (sometimes they’re back to back, so you may walk in at the tail end of an OCWS—that’s OK, c’mon in). Sometimes there are also additional meetings after a regular meeting, such as an EDA meeting. This can be helpful to know, especially if you want to talk to an elected official.
Sharing local information like this happens thanks to the generous support of our members. You can join them and support local news through Patreon, starting at $3 per month.