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Monday, February 25, 2008
American Fork City's Next Two Years

There's a particular sort of progress we need to see in our City government.

Sea Change

I'd be surprised if many people noticed an official American Fork City meeting that was held several weeks ago, on January 7. It was a swearing-in ceremony, where four of American Fork's six elected officials, the ones who won new terms in November, were sworn in. It's understandable that this happened mostly under the public's radar, because all six elected City officials were in the same jobs after the ceremony as before it.

The same meeting two years earlier seemed more significant. That day, American Fork's first new mayor in eight years took office, along with two fresh, very capable new city councilors. Things didn't change so much and so immediately that I would want to use the word revolution, but there was a definite sea change in our local government then. Major projects procrastinated by past leaders began to get the attention they had long deserved. Pressurized irrigation is probably the most obvious of these, but there are others, on which I have commented here in the past.

Not all the big jobs are done, however. Some of them are unfinished because things like a citywide pressurized irrigation system take years to complete. Some of the big things, by their nature, recur annually, such as dealing with Utah's perverse truth-in-taxation laws that shrink municipal budgets a few percent each year, unless cities impose regular (and misnamed) tax increases to keep up.

Thinking ahead, it is relatively easy to guess what matters will occupy the time and energy of American Fork's elected leaders. Business as usual in a small city might be enough to keep them busy, but in case it's not, they have those major projects to oversee. They also have to stand up to the Utah Department of Transportation, defending the city's quality of life against UDOT's ongoing efforts to run an infinite number of cars through the middle of American Fork's downtown. Leaders also inevitably worry about the impact of an economic slowdown on city sales and property tax revenues. And you never know when an apparently small issue will explode into a major struggle, either because of unforeseen events, because the matter is mishandled, or because residents decide to get thoroughly alarmed before they have sufficient facts and understanding at their disposal.

So there is plenty for interested American Forkers to watch over the next year or two, where their city government is concerned. But I haven't even listed yet the matter I will watch with greatest interest. It is a matter of serious concern to some of American Fork's leaders, I believe, but perhaps not to all of them. I choose to describe it with an automotive metaphor.

An Automotive Metaphor  

Two years ago, American Fork's municipal government was a poorly-tuned four-cylinder engine trying to propel a family car, when the family had already outgrown both the car and its engine, and had begun to need a larger car with a six-cylinder engine. The engine itself was in disrepair. One or two of the four existing cylinders fired only intermittently; the vehicle moved down the street after a fashion, but not efficiently. It was a slow, noisy, jerky ride, and the engine seemed to be burning oil, or perhaps burning too much fuel, depending on which color of smoke you like in your metaphors.

(Back in the real world for a moment, I'm not sure we even want our government to be efficient in every way -- not that there is any risk of that -- but we do need it to be competent and at least somewhat efficient at its essential functions. We pay for and consume them, after all.)

Two years later, we still don't have the needed six-cylinder engine, but a tune-up helped a lot. The old four-banger still isn't running perfectly and probably never will, but for the moment its inadequacies are less obvious to the outside observer than they were. Meanwhile, the family is still growing, and we need six cylinders and the vehicle to match them even more than we did before.

In real life, if the four-cylinder car you test-drive is underpowered or undersized, it is relatively simple to adjust your preferences to larger car with a larger engine. The purchase price will be higher, and so will fuel costs, but the upgrade is not complex in principle.

The same upgrade is surprisingly complex in government. Here are some of the obstacles -- again, metaphorically speaking:

  • Some people remember fondly the days when the vehicle was downright peppy with a four-cylinder engine. They may regret the need for an upgrade and want to keep the four-cylinder engine as long as it still can drag the vehicle down the road. When it finally fails, they will insist on replacing it with a newer four-cylinder engine, as if keeping the engine small will reverse the family's past growth and prevent its future growth.
  • Some people may think six-cylinder engines are unwise or even morally wrong, either because they cost more and burn more fuel, or because a bigger engine leaves less room under the hood. Or perhaps they think anything they don't like is by definition morally wrong.
  • Some of the mechanics who maintain the engine may not know how to maintain a six-cylinder engine, and they may not want to learn. Or they may fear that they actually cannot learn. (In the latter situation, it is possible that they are right.)
  • Some of the drivers (and back-seat drivers) may actively fear the greater power and performance of the larger engine.
  • Management may be unwilling to pay for the new vehicle, or for the training to upgrade current mechanics' or drivers' qualifications, or to hire more capable mechanics and drivers.
  • Management may be unwilling to demand that mechanics and drivers raise their skills and performance to the level necessary to handle the larger engine, and may be unwilling to fire those who do not.
  • Investors may be willing to fund the upgrade, but management may be afraid to ask.

All of these metaphorical obstacles are common enough in local governments generally. I'm not saying all of them exist in American Fork at the present moment, but I think a careful observer would not have to look very long to find a few of them.

Less Parabolically

Will our elected officials take arms against a sea of administrative inertia and get us that six-cylinder engine we've been needing? Will they finally insist that City staff and organization, from top to bottom, either keep up with the city's changing times, size, and needs, or find employment elsewhere? There has been noticeable progress in this respect over the past two years, but much of what needs to be done by the City in coming years depends on that progress continuing.

I believe that American Fork's city government is better than it was two years ago. The four-cylinder engine is running fairly well and straining manfully to keep us moving. But it's just not enough any more, and no amount of waiting, wishing, or denial can make it adequate again. I'm not confident that the next batch of leaders will be better, so I earnestly hope the current batch, before their terms expire, will finish the job of dragging the City into its six-cylinder 21st century. Would you care to watch with me?

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