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Following insults and threats, progressives oust the old guard in West. St. Paul

At one point, the mayor opened her door to find a box of tampons sitting on her step.

At one point, the mayor opened her door to find a box of tampons sitting on her step. Richard Tsong-Taatarii

A former West St. Paul city manager is suing the city, all over a throwaway comment made by Councilman John Bellows.

The comings and goings of the sleepy suburb may seem like humble fare compared to the intrigue available on a national scale. But West St. Paul is home to a Game of Thrones struggle between two warring factions – one rife with backstabbing, packages delivered under the cover of night, and an angry populace. This is a brawl between two generations over control of the future.

We begin with former city manager Matt Fulton. He was hired in 2013, and became a known advocate for progressive projects – like building a tunnel under Robert Street to complete the River to River Greenway bike trail.

It's the kind of thing a changing suburb does when it begins to yield a younger, more diverse population drawn to relatively inexpensive housing. West St. Paul's minority population -- largely Latino -- doubled between 2000 and 2010. Its younger cohort want things like bike paths and more public spaces.

And why not, especially when state and county are willing to help fund it?

Bellows is why not – along with fellow conservative Councilman Ed Iago, who once got himself in hot water for “liking” the Trumpian, pro-Confederate Facebook page Southern Rebel. (He insists he was hacked.)

These two were longstanding members of West St. Paul’s old guard, content to see things stay the way they are.

In 2016, two new conservative members were elected to the council, which brought about a shift in the balance. They helped form a bloc that pushed Fulton’s exit. In early 2017, he saw the writing on the wall and resigned.

It came not without some rancor from the other two council members – Dave Napier and Dick Vitelli – and Mayor Jenny Halverson. They insisted Fulton had been given a raw deal. Vitelli was quick to point out that West St. Paul had a “bit of a reputation” for going through city managers in the first place.

Part of Fulton’s separation agreement stipulated that both sides would keep the whole thing classy, “without making acrimonious statements or disparaging comments about the other now or in the future.”

But acrimony is not something the city is prone to avoiding. Take Halverson, West St. Paul's first female mayor, and someone who wasn't afraid to point this out to her all-male council. She once opened her front door to find a box of tissues and a box of tampons sitting on her step.

The women of West St. Paul were furious. So began wave after wave of women showing up at council meetings, ensuring the mayor would never again be the only woman in the room. Some who spoke out ended up finding screws embedded in their tires. 

At one packed meeting, resident Julie Eastman took the podium to say she was happy when Halverson was elected in 2016, and that she hoped for “a positive change for the city and the council.”

“Unfortunately, I was quickly disappointed after the ouster of our former City Manager Matt Fulton,” she said. “It was another example of a string of poor decisions that did not reflect well on the character of our city.”

Bellows begged to differ. “I don’t think there’s anybody at this council table that will tell you that we are not better off as a city with our current city manager,” he said.

Vitelli raised his hand in objection, but the crowd began to laugh and applaud.

Last month, Fulton filed suit against the city over Bellows’ wisecrack and asked for $50,000 in damages.

To an outsider, it may all look like the detritus of a slap-fight. But conflict inevitably gives way to change.

This year, Napier, one of the council members who opposed Fulton’s resignation, was elected mayor over Fernandez, who was among those champing for Fulton's departure. Vitelli won his seat uncontested. Progressive John Justen won over old guard member Jim Probst. And Wendy Berry, a queer woman and newcomer to the town – she also found a screw in her tire -- won a seat against the city’s one-time conservative mayor, David Meisinger.

If the new guard tells us anything, it’s that for all the insults, threats, and dirty looks, West St. Paul is transforming.