New council members plan to increase transparency at St. Paul City Hall

Rebecca Noecker and Jane Prince emphasized the need for more transparency at City Hall. 

By Jessie Van Berkel Star Tribune

January 5, 2016

Jane L. Prince smiled after taking an oath during the St. Paul inauguration ceremony for its City Council members on Tuesday.

A color guard marched in, dressed-up families posed for photos and the city’s poet laureate waxed eloquent about the Green Line and new breweries.

But amid the pomp of Tuesday’s St. Paul City Council inauguration at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts came the message to continue the momentum in a city that Mayor Chris Coleman described as “on the brink of greatness.”

Two new City Council members joined the seven-person board at the swearing-in event. Rebecca Noecker and Jane Prince — the former a relatively new face and the latter a longtime city staffer and community activist — emphasized the need for more transparency at City Hall.

Along with incumbent Amy Brendmoen, the addition of Noecker and Prince triples the number of women on the council. It has been 20 years since three of the seven council members were women.

It likely won’t just be the newcomers focusing on open government this year, Prince said, after what the candidates heard on the campaign trail last year.

“There was kind of a theme of, ‘You better be talking to us before you make these kind of decisions,’ ” such as the failed plan to put parking meters on Grand Avenue, she said. “I think one of the things we’ll all ask each other is: Has the public been adequately informed?”

Rebecca Noecker smiled after taking an oath during the St. Paul inauguration ceremony for its City Council members on Tuesday.

    The walls in Noecker’s new council office were bare on Monday and her business cards were still being printed, but she already had plans in place to make city government more accessible and open.

    She said she will knock on doors to talk with community members and hold regular office hours in different parts of the Second Ward, which includes downtown, the West Side and the West 7th Street area.

    She wants to educate people on how to navigate city government, and said she plans to involve community stakeholders from the start when launching initiatives.

    Better communication

    Noecker said a surprising number of people told her that elected officials’ priorities often do not reflect their own, that “City Hall is doing its own thing, regardless of what people want.”

    That feeling, however, was not strong enough to unseat any council members who sought re-election last year.

    While there is some community frustration, there also has been good feedback about the direction the city is headed, Council President Russ Stark said.

    “A lot of people are excited about the positive things happening in St. Paul right now,” Stark said, noting redevelopment, new restaurants along Payne Avenue and the light-rail Green Line connecting downtown St. Paul and downtown ­Minneapolis.

    But he agreed that there is a growing demand for transparency. He said that may be partly the result of people disliking a decision and blaming the process, even if they had a chance to weigh in on it.

    “I do take it to heart,” he said of the critique, adding that the council will try “to communicate a better idea of what we’re doing and why.”

    Prince, whose Seventh Ward includes much of the East Side, said people told her during the campaign that they wanted to make sure women were on the council.

    Why?

    “Maybe it’s listening a little bit longer before we act,” Prince said. “Or maybe it’s even being concerned about serving kids and families.”