Saint Paul Ward 1 Candidate Questionnaire: Liz De La Torre

Delatorre Liz HeadshotFor many years has published questionnaires for candidates for local office in the Twin Cities so that our many interested readers can make better informed decisions when they participate in local political races. This year I am focusing on the Saint Paul Ward 1 Council race.  The questions were compiled from community member inquiries in my Frogtown neighborhood.

The questions were compiled from a community member survey, edited for tone/brevity, and forwarded to candidates.  Candidate answers were not edited or fact checked in any way.  These are the answers of the candidates themselves and do not represent my personal opinion or the opinion of as an organization.

All disclaimers aside, this survey would not have been possible without the generous contributions of inquiries from Patricia Ohmans, Bonnie Kristian, Pat Larkey, Amir, Jon Whitling, Jennifer Whitling, Judi Gordon, and Danielle Swift, and Daniel Choma.  Thank-you to Greening Frogtown, The Frogtown Neighborhood Association, Karen Larson of WFNU-LP Frogtown Radio, and the administrators of Frogtown Neighborhood Facebook Group as well for promoting the survey. 

1). The issue of coordinated trash in Saint Paul has been especially contentious in the past year.  Originally implemented by Mayor Coleman, A petition of over 5000 Saint Paul residents (nearly 2% of the population) was presented to Mayor Carter asking that the city put the question of whether or not municipal trash collection continues on the November ballot. 

The city denied the referendum arguing that a referendum to request the city to break its contract with haulers wouldn’t be appropriate.  3 residents then sued the city in pursuit of adding the trash question to the ballot.  The Supreme Court of Minnesota recently ordered the City of Saint Paul to put the trash question on the ballot.

As a candidate for city council, what is your vision for how garbage should be collected in the City of Saint Paul? 

Regarding the balance of city decisions, democratic ideals, and the public good: Is there anything that potential council members should learn from Saint Paul’s recent implementation of municipal trash? If so, what?

I believe that our municipal government should be covering essential city services like street cleaning, street and alley plowing and garbage collection. But because our city lacks revenue to purchase the equipment to make that a reality, we have to resort to contracting out city services like this. While the current contract is not perfect, it is still a vast improvement on the old system that allowed homeowners to change haulers on a whim. There are plenty of changes that can be made to the program assuming that both parties are willing to negotiate. It is clear that when this five-year contract is up, the city should (and probably will) move to an RFP and pick a single hauler to collect garbage citywide. I would like to see the city move toward collecting organics and move to include commercial properties as well. Given that many of the customer-service oriented complaints are centered on specific haulers, I do not believe that a phased roll-out or pilot program would have brought these issues to the surface fast enough to prevent them.

Overall, the lesson learned in the implementation of trash is that we must have staff working in our city departments that have experience in managing waste collection informing the decision-makers. We live in a representative democracy where we vote for individuals to make informed decisions on our behalf. We should not expect to get what we want all of the time but rather trust our elected officials to do their homework and make informed decisions that benefit the most amount of citizens possible and hold them accountable when challenges arise. I am personally eager to put this garbage referendum discussion to rest and channel that energy into more pressing and critical issues.


2). What are the root causes behind why the City is not moving the needle on racially equitable outcomes? How will you challenge the status quo to bring equity to communities of color and low income?

Many of the equity issues that our communities of color continue to face are deeply rooted in racism. We cannot possibly expect to move the needle on better outcomes when we continue to craft policy that lacks teeth, and continue to vote in policy makers that fail to understand the nuances of public policy. From taking removing police officers from the PCIARC, to voting against the Ford Site, to delaying the rollout of $15 per hour, CM Thao has proven to us that he lacks understanding of nuances of his policy making and how those decisions impact working families. A $15 per hour wage is a minimum wage, not a livable wage. Grouping businesses that employ five employees and those that employ 99 employees together to push back to phase-in misses the mark. That’s why my campaign is challenging the status quo by offering Ward 1 an alternative to this type of failed leadership. It’s why the most important value of my message and my candidacy is that I’m deeply rooted in truth, transparency and accountability. It’s why I plan to engage those most vulnerable and those of us most impacted by decisions made at city hall year-round.  I will stand by my votes and explain my point of view rather than blurring it in empty campaign rhetoric.

3). What is your vision for essential city services such as street repair, plowing, and other public works related municipal services? 

Furthermore, the city is responsible for many of the streets in Frogtown.  Can you get roundabouts installed in key intersections like they have in Midway?

What is your vision for biking and pedestrian infrastructure on city streets?  Regarding mobility, what will you do to support individuals who are differently abled?

Our city’s public works department will continue to struggle to deliver basic services if we are not willing to make tough decisions and generate revenue. We already know that our streets are deteriorating and require another yearly infusion of $20 million just to keep up with repairs. One way to do this is to add more metered parking to busy parts of the city like Snelling and Grand Avenues. The public works department had a pilot program in mind that would have added another $800,000 to the city’s coffers on a yearly basis.

Furthermore, making our city more walkable and safe means investing in more bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure when it matters most, not just when seeking reelection. My vision for a safer city includes supporting Mayor Carter’s plan make Ayd Mill Road a complete street, reducing speed limits citywide, adding traffic calming devices like roundabouts all over Ward 1, eliminating parking minimums, and ensuring that all of these projects are accessible to all residents.

4). Due to increases in property values, property taxes have gone up at a higher rate than the rest of the city in Frogtown.  How do you see this affecting the community and what plans do you have to mitigate possible adverse effects of this increase?

We’ve seen over and over that relying heavily on property tax increases year over year is disproportionately affecting families in Frogtown. This means that we must grow our tax base by bringing in more commercial development opportunities, speeding up the phasing in of minimum wage, ensuring that those already in our communities are given priority in purchasing homes in the area. It means ensuring that corporations are also paying their share of taxes and working with our counterparts in county government help offset the increase in property values and taxes.

5). Saint Paul has more non-profits than average, contributing to a greater number of land parcels within city limits that do not contribute to the tax base.  As our city grows, our need for public services grows with it.  Do you see a future need to change how we tax non-profits in order to make sure our budget is financially sustainable?

In comparing Saint Paul to its peer cities in Minnesota (like Minneapolis, Duluth, and Rochester) we see that this challenge is not unique to our city with just under 25% of the land off the tax scrolls. Half of that quarter of properties actually belong to a government entity whether it be state, county, or municipal. We should be looking to these cities to generate ideas that we can test and implement to best meet Saint Paul’s needs. Since we are prohibited by state and federal law from collecting taxes on non-profits, we must implement a robust payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program that includes hospitals and colleges and universities. These programs would be required to be “voluntary” with these entities largely benefitting from the elimination of “right of way” assessments, there is no reason that they would not be expected to contribute in some amount. But this move alone will not solve our financing woes which is why I support a moratorium on charter schools what would only increase the tax burden and further drain resources and students from our public schools.

6). Saint Paul as a city has “strong mayor” format. Because of this, the mayor’s office has a unique ability to set policy for the city. As a council person, when is it appropriate to push back against mayoral policies and when is it appropriate to work with the mayor?

Our city charter is what gives the city council and our mayor their powers and responsibilities. Since the city council is the legislative body it can provide a check on our mayor, via the budget and ordinances, but our city council should be expected to work with the mayor as much as possible and vice versa to craft solutions together. City council members should not shy away from voicing differences of opinion and push back against the mayor since council members are independently elected by the people they represent.

On the other hand, I would personally like to see mayors attend more city council meetings and engage in discussions more frequently and seeking more input from the council on hiring decisions in key positions. I would also like to see the mayor’s office engage in some strategic planning in conjunction with each city council member to develop shared goals citywide and at the Ward level. Municipal government is about the collective and we should expect for egos to be left out for the common good and to find real solutions to the challenges our communities face.

7). What is your vision for community safety in the City of Saint Paul? How does the Saint Paul Police force play into that vision of community safety? How do community policing principles such as requiring beat cops to walk the neighborhood instead of driving around in cars plan into your vision?  In what ways does your vision of safety reduce gun violence?

Community policing is an approach that does not require an increase in our police department’s authorized strength, but demands that we be included in solutions proactively rather than reactively. We know that our neighbors watch out for each other daily and know best what’s happening in their neighborhoods.This means that beat cops should be walking on our streets, not in their vehicles, tapping into that expertise. I believe this is possible by moving more sworn peace officers into more traditional roles, rather than in administrative positions and making patrol services be an extension of community engagement rather than entirely reactionary. Our police department is due for more reforms that entail reviewing standard operating procedures, addressing 9-1-1 response times, and decreasing expensive and bureaucratic positions.

While we can achieve better outcomes and increase accountability, decreasing our police department’s funding will not get us there. Putting more officers in traditional roles will require backfilling positions with civilian employees, and it will require buy-in from our Mayor and our Chief of Police. Additionally, as Saint Paul continues to grapple with more gun violence makes clear that we need a strategic vision and plan for how we will be addressing the root causes of violence. This moment requires that we all go beyond the rhetoric and talking points, that we have uncomfortable conversations about funding priorities, implicit bias, white supremacy, systemic and institutional racism and ensure that those most affected by these policies are at the table participating in these conversations.

8). Minneapolis and Saint Paul are experiencing a well-documented housing crisis.  The problem is large in scope as many people live on our streets, tenants report experiencing unfair treatment from landlords, and people who have lived in neighborhoods for a long time are being forced by market forces to move. 

How will you advance tenant protections in Ward 1 and across the city? What is the city’s role in providing for homeless citizens? Can you work to loosen zoning rules so that we can have triplexes, multiple tiny houses on one lot, etc.? How can the city promote affordable housing? How can the city promote market rate housing?

With close to half of Saint Paulites being renters, I would like to propose a robust set of tenant protections, like a bill of rights that contains unambiguous and enforceable language. Some of the language used in the protections recently passed in the city of Minneapolis would be a good start. These protections would be only the beginning of much needed reforms. I would also like to see the city of Saint Paul do away with parking minimums, change antiquated language in our zoning codes that restricts triplexes and fourplexes, and defines what a single family household is and ensure that we are building housing density across the entire city. We must build more housing in every corner of this city, ensuring that we are helping those families that are at 30% AMI first, and that we’re creating more emergency shelters to help those that are currently have nowhere else to go.

Additionally, Saint Paul has already begun to make big strides in tackling the housing crisis with the creation of the Housing Trust Fund in late 2018, allocating 50% of the ½ cent sales tax through the Neighborhood STAR Program. This is a fantastic start, but it’s not enough. I propose exploring an increase in the sales tax that would be dedicated exclusively to addressing the housing crisis.

9). Regarding economic development and jobs, what is your vision for the city’s new Office of Financial Empowerment? Furthermore, how can the city support local businesses in pursuit of the creation of new jobs?

The creation of the city’s new Office of Financial Empowerment within the existing Financial Services Department is a noble goal and one that follows the lead from other cities in the country that explicitly prioritize battling poverty. Having dedicated staff to coordinate efforts with other organizations and nonprofits already doing the work makes sense along with having a staff member focused on affordable housing. The devil will be in the details, as the city would be poised to play the important role of coordinating existing efforts with organizations, each with a range of capacity and competency. My work and experience in human services work informs my perspective– I am very interested in how the city will be working with these partners and how do we ensure that the information is free-flowing and also getting to the decision-makers.

Additionally, growing this department begs the question of funding and how we’ll be paying for it. We must be willing to expand parking meters in more prosperous parts of the city like Grand Avenue and parts of Selby and Snelling. Our city must generate more revenue beyond double-digit property tax increases to sustain an initiative like the Office of Financial Empowerment.

10). Saint Paul district planning councils receive nearly $1.5 million in public funds. They all operate independently as 501.c3s with minimal oversight from the city. Should St. Paul conduct an evaluation of the effectiveness and accountability of district planning councils? In what ways can the district council system be improved?

I have a great amount of respect and gratitude for the thankless jobs many of our district councils do, but the city can and should do more authority and oversight of the district planning councils.I think of the example of the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council that was recently in a significant amount of debt as it came to light that their executive director appeared to gravely mismanage that organization and their grant funding, with apparently little oversight or repercussions. While I understand that this is the exception and not the rule, I know through my own involvement on a district council on the east side, that we were often frustrated competing and losing money to Dayton’s Bluff only to have it mismanaged. There’s also the issue of renters and people of color being underrepresented on these councils that do have a large say in development and allocation of resources. All that to say that I am open to real reforms that would make our district councils work better and more reflective of the people they represent.


Daniel Choma

About Daniel Choma

Daniel Choma is a community advocate, a jazz musician, and a former bible salesman. He rides bikes, plays drums, and tells jokes. He can consume a bag of jelly beans faster than almost anyone.