West St. Paul's Facebook fight exposes a generational split

Councilman Ed Iago's Facebook choices came under questioning, and he defended himself by making up the phrase 'timestamp hacking.'

Councilman Ed Iago's Facebook choices came under questioning, and he defended himself by making up the phrase 'timestamp hacking.' West St. Paul City Council

Jay DeLaRosby and his wife bought a house in West St. Paul last year. They liked the schools—they have three kids—and Jay liked the five-mile bike commute to his job at Children’s Hospital.

He met other young professionals at community events like the annual kids’ bike rodeo. They all liked West St. Paul, but wanted to see it modernize with more bike lanes, more buses, more public spaces, more trees... and, hey, how about some sidewalks?

DeLaRosby wouldn’t describe this like-minded cohort as a “group,” at least not in any organized way. “We’re a bunch of people who yell about the same things online,” he says, laughing.

Last month, they all found something new to yell about.

A post appeared on a lively local Facebook group. It contained a screenshot of pages City Council member Ed Iago had “Liked.” One account, called “Southern Rebel,” was circled in red. The account, replete with Confederate Flag for background, provides its 300,000 followers with a stream of pro-Trump, anti-immigrant, anti-“black thug,” and pro-Confederacy stories and memes.

Iago soon claimed he may have been “timestamp hacked,” a heretofore unknown method of sabotage. He then deleted his account.

At the next council meeting, Iago read a statement, denying “unequivocally” that he was even aware of Southern Rebel. He also noted that “several professionals in the IT world” informed him that hacking is “a common occurrence.” 

Iago also got “professional assistance” to uncloak the person who revealed his alleged fondness of angst-ridden rednecks, Robert McTavish, who happens to be “a fake person.” His sleuthing found that McTavish has no known driver’s license, utility, or tax records in Minnesota.

Still, he defended his Facebook critics’ right to free speech, “even if it’s garbage.”

It was a dramatic monologue, with Iago playing the classic conservative role of victim, detective, moralist, and statesman. 

The retired banker’s performance didn’t play so well with the younger generation, who were either infuriated at or embarrassed for him. But he wasn’t speaking to them. His message was aimed at the suburb’s retirees, those wary of social media and the mysteries of technology, and suspicious of the “fake news” and “political correctness” they’ve heard about on Fox News.

The elders like West St. Paul the way it is: a quiet rectangle of post-war houses with modest property taxes, a big middle class, and virtually no growth. (At 19,540 people as of the last census, it’s added only 700 residents since 1970.) Holding this line leaves the occasional casualty.

Former city manager Matt Fulton advocated for the construction of a tunnel to complete the “River to River Greenway” trail, a biking and walking path that spans much of the county. Or would, if West St. Paul would simply accept state and county money already set aside for it.

Iago opposes the project, hailing from that strain of conservatism that says the best government does the least. Why build a bike path that people like him won’t use?

“People like Ed Iago... think you just get in your truck, or your SUV, and you go do what you need to do,” says resident Andrea Friesen.

The 2016 elections added two new conservative members to the council, giving Iago a majority voting bloc. In January, days after the new council was inducted, Iago and two others asked for a meeting with Fulton, who saw the writing on the wall and resigned. This prompted Iago to suddenly find his generosity, pushing a severance package worth $120,000—one that bars Fulton from criticizing the council.

Samantha Green, a property manager who’s lived in West St. Paul for seven years, says the council’s score-settling ways—from Fulton’s exit to Iago’s curious research of “Robert McTavish”—“creates an intimidation factor,” preempting younger people from getting involved.

At a June meeting, council members Bob Pace and Anthony Fernandez, Iago’s allies who helped shove Fulton out the door, questioned the worthiness of certain citizens for advisory committees, citing social media “attacks” against elected officials.

This appears to include DeLaRosby, who applied to join a parks committee. Iago and his conservative voting bloc passed on him, despite the park board’s recommendation, and appointed someone else. DeLaRosby and others suspect he was punished for being too outspoken at his local ward meetings.

Let’s pause here: This is a gainfully employed millennial with kids, a 30-year-mortgage, and enough interest that he’s showing up at neighborhood meetings and volunteering for civic boards. Most aging, slow-growth suburbs are begging for Jay DeLaRosbys. West St. Paul’s council decided they didn’t need him. (He was later appointed to the parks board anyway; after a member resigned out of frustration with the City Council, DeLaRosby was the only candidate to replace her.)

Other appointments are still pending, even though some of the sought-after board seats have been vacant for years. Several people declined to go on the record for this column, afraid that speaking out would bar them from involvement in city government.

“[Iago] and people like him are still civically involved, and that’s great,” says Samantha Green. “But they’re probably past the point of representing their everyday constituents.”

West St. Paul’s changing. Latinos now make up about a fifth of the city, with the minority population nearly doubling from 2000 to 2010. A few thousand more people are on the way, the Met Council predicts. Many will be non-white. Most will be young.

The enemy is inside the gates, and is demanding a place to take their kids for a bike ride. The math is on their side. But change will come slowly, painfully, so long as Ed Iago has something to do with it.

And until things change at city hall, he has everything to do with it.

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