From soccer to student housing, transit to trees, Jay Benanav and Jane Prince have tackled a lot of issues in their decade on the St. Paul City Council.
Benanav is not running for re-election this year, so Ward 4, which includes St. Anthony Park and western Como Park, will elect a new council member on November 6.
And when Benanav leaves, Prince ends her run as his assistant — or partner, as many describe their working relationship.
They’ve made some potential adversaries feel like partners too, over the years. Those who have had occasion to confront them describe “Jay and Jane” as capable mediators who bring all parties to the table, listen well and find solutions that everyone can live with.
Lori Fritts would spot it right away if her council representative couldn’t mediate. As director of the Midway Chamber of Commerce, she advocates for businesses whose council members are elected by people who live in the area but may or may not do business there.
Fritts said Benanav has leaned toward the residents’ positions but that “Jay’s door was always open to trying to understand what the problem was” for business.
“Jay is a businessman,” she said. “He understands the value of business to the neighborhood.” Fritts said when a discussion has stagnated, she has found him “willing to call the question and move ahead.”
In addition to his part-time job as council member, Benanav has continued practicing law — with the St. Paul firm of Weinblatt and Gaylord since 2001 and before that with the Workers Compensation Reinsurance Association.
Benanav took office in 1998, following Bobbi Megard, who vacated the seat and then ran for mayor, with Benanav as one of her opponents.
Megard, a St. Anthony Park resident, said that as her former adversary’s term closes, “I would personally thank Jay for his service, and I think he’s done a good job.”
She said her only criticism is that “Jay has been somewhat distracted in his search for other offices.” In addition to his not-quite-successful mayoral attempt, he ran for a judgeship last year.
But she praised him for negotiating a soccer stadium on the University of Minnesota campus, helping broker a solution to the Ayd Mill Road dispute, defending library hours and advocating for affordable housing.
And she mentioned what was possibly the biggest project of his tenure in office: “He was instrumental in helping to bring the St. Thomas development to a close.”
Megard, like others, noted Prince’s central role. “He has a tremendous assistant in Jane Prince,” she said. “That has certainly helped with staying on top of Ward 4 issues.”
As he prepared to take office in 1998, Benanav looked around for the one assistant he could appoint to work with him at City Hall: a legislative aide. (Each council member also has a secretary, but those are city staffers rather than appointees.)
At the time, Prince was city chair of the Democrat Farmer-Labor party, and colleagues recommended her.
“It’s been my most favorite job I’ve ever had,” said Prince, who previously served on her own district council, in the Mounds Park area, and worked in city government.
When the job was proposed, she jumped at the chance. “The idea — that he would consider giving me a job to schmooze at City Hall,” she said with a laugh. “I can get paid for this?”
She did feel “some trepidation” as she started, however. She’d been around long enough to form her own opinions, and she wondered how that would feel when Benanav, inevitably, took a different position — and had the power to vote on it while she stood by.
The chemistry turned out to be remarkable. “I think there have only been five or six issues that have come before the council that we didn’t agree on,” she said.
Only one still causes regret, a development issue on which she strongly disagreed. “He ended up granting an appeal, against the plan that the neighborhood had worked out,” Prince recalled.
Apart from those rare occasions, Prince said she and Benanav have seen eye to eye and share a legacy of conflict resolution in the ward that makes her proud.
Neighborhood activists speak highly of their teamwork, as well.
“Jay and Jane are very hands-on,” said Sue McCall, director of the community council in District 10, the Como neighborhood. “But they’re still respectful of the process and what the neighbors want to see,” she added.
McCall’s district takes in parts of Wards 4 and 5, and she grew up in the area, so she has a long view of political history.
She gave the example of a parking lot proposed by the Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps, just east of the fairgrounds.
“It popped up that the Job Corps was going to turn that lot across Arlington into a huge, brightly lit parking lot,” she recalled.
Because the project was federal, it wasn’t accountable to the city. Benanav worked with U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and Sen. Paul Wellstone and eventually got the Job Corps to change their plans.
McCall said Benanav and Prince “truly wanted to know what neighbors want,” showing an unusual level of concern. “It’s not typical,” she said. “Others have a tendency to steer outcomes.”
She said, “That’s their biggest strength; they’re good listeners.” And of Prince in particular, McCall said, “She’s diligent but she’s also a facilitator. That’s huge.”
Conflict over land use has been a large part of her job, Prince said.
“One of the biggest potential conflicts is a zoning dispute,” she said. “Very early on, Jay wanted to figure out ways to find a win-win.”
His original campaign was inspired, at least in part, by conflicts with the University of St. Thomas near his own home, a project he would have an opportunity to tackle as a council member.
Prince said one key to his eventual success mediating the St. Thomas housing expansion was that he “never took a position.” He’d be out of the game, for one thing, because it’s illegal for a council member to vote on a zoning matter on which he or she has publicly taken sides.
But beyond that, she said, “he’s a very good problem-solver.” He took the attitude that between a college and the neighborhood it’s in, “the relationship should work.”
One result of Benanav and Prince’s efforts in that regard is the West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee, an ongoing forum for discussion between St. Thomas and its neighbors.
“It’s a place where people are willing to be very frank and deal with problems right away,” Prince said, citing a parking ramp plan that recently made its way through review by the committee without becoming contentious.
Inspired by her experiences on Benanav’s team, Prince is finishing law school at Hamline and hopes to spin her interest in land use into her next career, in “alternative dispute resolution,” a specialty at Hamline.
“I think a lot of what lawyers should be doing is solving problems before they get into litigation,” she said. “And that’s a definite trend.”
Prince took her own turn praising the people she’s worked with, particularly in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood.
“We’ve learned from St. Anthony Park how to be good council stewards,” she said, citing the acquisition of railroad land for community gardens, the tennis courts at College Park and other projects accomplished during Benanav’s and Megard’s terms. “It’s an amazing neighborhood.”