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Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Election Season Looms in American Fork

The filing period runs from July 1 to July 15. Notes on the incumbents and the possibilities. The passive citizen goes to the polls and chooses between the lesser of two evils, complaining all the while. The adept citizen acts much earlier, in an effort to get the right names on the ballot.

Four weeks from today, on July 1, the filing period for American Fork mayoral and city council candidates begins. It ends two weeks later, at 5:00 p.m. on July 15, according to City Recorder Dick Colborn. Two of the five city council seats will be up for election, and there will be a mayoral election, too. All terms are four years.

If there are more than two candidates for mayor or more than four candidates for the two council seats (all of whom run in a single race), there will be a primary election in September. In any case, there will be a general election in November.

It is theoretically also possible that there will a race for a half-term seat, as has happened in the past two city council elections. In one case, Councilman Dale Gunther ran for the seat vacated mid-term by Councilman Tom Hunter, who resigned. Then Gunther ran for and won another two years to finish the term of Councilman Jimmie Cates, who passed away in the second year of his final term. I have no knowledge, suspicion, or rumor to report that would suggest that a midterm vacancy will occur this year in time to be filled by the election; I merely report the possibility because it has been an actuality more often than not in recent years.

Will the Incumbents Run?

There are three incumbents whose terms are ending: Mayor Heber Thompson and City Councilors Dale Gunther and Heidi Rodeback (the latter also known as MFCC here at the blog). Thompson and Rodeback are finishing their first four-year term; Gunther began his service on the same day as the other two, but is, as noted, finishing his second two-year half-term.

At present, I expect all three to run for reelection, though I am not aware that any has formally announced that intention. Assuming that all three file as candidates in the early hours or days of the filing period, we may see relatively little serious opposition. Each of the three looks difficult to beat, though none is invulnerable.

Mayor Thompson won in 2005 by a landslide. I would be surprised to see him win by a similar margin while running as an incumbent against a competent challenger, but he would not need a landslide, just a majority. I doubt that public discontent over assorted issues adds up to an advantage for the challenger this year. But the large tax increase of 2008, together with the ham-handed way the City handled it and November's five proposed bond issues, suggests that a good challenger would at least have a chance.

Councilman Dale Gunther has won by landslides in the last two elections and can run as well-funded a campaign as he cares to. He has irritated a few American Forkers here and there in the last four years, but not enough to threaten his reelection, unless there is a far greater anti-incumbent fervor than there seems to be. He voted for the 2008 property tax increase, too, and was instrumental in the proposal of the five failed bond issues. So a challenger would at least have something to talk about. Still, a Gunther defeat would be an enormous upset.

Councilmember Heidi Rodeback has the advantage of having voted against the large 2008 tax increase, and she seems to have had some influence in keeping it from being larger than it was. This does not grant invulnerability, however. In many cases those who have a beef with the city council as a whole will not know or care which members voted which way. In other cases, the council has voted unanimously, as in the 2006 property tax increase and several votes related to pressurized irrigation, so widespread dissatisfaction would become a liability for any candidate. In MFCC's favor is what seems to be a fairly widespread perception that she advocates the interests of a broader group of city residents than her colleagues do. I've heard this from several quarters, including Leo Tornow, commenting here at the blog:

It often feels like your wife Heidi is the only city council member that appreciates the view of the 80% or more who aren't upper-income citizens in American Fork.

Tax increases and other divisive issues often attract a few fringe or single-issue opponents. It's difficult to weigh the advantages of incumbency against the intensity of anti-incumbent fervor in any given election, but such narrow campaigns are almost always weak. It's worth wondering whether there is enough voter dissatisfaction with the pressurized irrigation project to cause all incumbents to struggle in American Fork this November, and whether there is any significant discontent remaining over last year's tax increase and failed bond proposals.

I suspect that most of the strong majority who voted to fund the pressurized irrigation project a few years ago still understand that it was necessary, that it was a cheaper and more sensible option than building a treatment plant and replacing most of the culinary water system, and that its high cost is a product of past councils' inaction. It seems more likely than last year's tax increase is still fresh enough and unpopular enough to motivate voters and potential candidates.

And I have to wonder if momentum is a factor. Last time American Forkers went to the polls in a city election, most of them opposed the incumbent council -- at least the council majority that proposed the bond issues -- in most or all of five separate votes, all of which failed. Does this fact by itself make them more likely to oppose incumbents this year, when those incumbents' names are actually on the ballot?

Responsibilities Expand to Fill Vacuums

At present, I know of no challengers with whom to compare the incumbents, so I can't say any particular candidate would be better or worse for the city. Certainly, none of the incumbents is irreplaceable. Yet each of the three plays a larger role at the City than one might expect.

The City's form of government provides for a part-time mayor and a full-time, professional city manager or administrator. The latter post has been vacant since well before Mayor Thompson took office. Mayor Thompson works full-time on his meager part-time stipend, however, and to some degree fills the role of the city manager or administrator. This sounds like it might be a desirable economy, since the City saves the salary of a highly-paid professional, but one must wonder whether there's really more work to do than a mayor can do himself, even working full-time. One must also wonder -- as some do -- whether paying a professional city manager would not lead to more than enough increased efficiencies to offset the salary.

In theory, at least, a full-time mayor on a part-time stipend could be a good thing, if the mayor worked efficiently and smoothly with an aggressive and effective chief of staff, who herself (or himself) had broad responsibilities and experience. Personal qualities aside, in American Fork the chief of staff's role is much more narrowly construed in practice, and I'm not sure that I could find two people who believe that things are running well enough now, under the current arrangements. However, it is certainly true that many American Forkers can remember when things ran poorly in comparison to the present administration.

Even if things were running particularly well, there would still be a problem with the current arrangement: a lack of continuity. Sometime in the foreseeable future there will be a new mayor, whose inclinations or circumstances may quite reasonably require him or her to treat the position as the part-time service it is designed to be. When this happens, there will be an immediate vacuum, unless there is a city manager or administrator already in place and functioning well. Regrettably, the current situation allows some to reassure themselves that such a professional is not needed, even as others insist that it is essential to the city's future.

For his part, Councilman Gunther has applied his considerable expertise in business and finance to fill a partial vacuum at the City. In my observation, he works very hard not only in his conventional role as city councilor, but at some needed tasks which are outside the usual boundaries of that role and would ordinarily be handled by staff, if the staff were available and capable of handling them. It is unfortunate that City staff does not have the needed expertise; it is fortunate that Gunther is able and willing to carry the extra load; and it is in any case far from certain that a city council without him in it will have someone with similar, exploitable expertise and availability.

Among other activities, MFCC has worked behind the scenes on nearly every successful, professional piece of significant public relations work the City has produced in the last three and a half years. And when the City has coughed up a PR hairball, as it has done from time to time, it has been against her counsel, without her expertise, or in her (occasional) absence. It is fairly clear that no one in the current City staff has the expertise or the vision to replace her in this role.

Again, I'm not saying that any of the three incumbents is irreplaceable. I am saying that the outcome of the election will have more impact than voters might suspect, because of this heavy reliance upon elected officials to perform functions which should be handled by staff. It would be interesting to see this undesirable dependency become an issue in the mayoral campaign, but it is probably too complex and subtle an issue to gain any meaninful traction with voters -- especially, again, because so many voters can remember times when things ran poorly in the past, by comparison with the admittedly imperfect present.

Four Campaigns

I'm not certain that all the incumbents will run for reelection, and I don't know who will run against them. I've heard a name or two bandied about, but I'll wait to see who files before mentioning names. In any case, somewhere in American Fork, some people are contemplating running for office. The decision process is not fundamentally different for potential challengers and incumbents. You might say there are generally four campaigns each potential candidate must consider, or, in other words, four constituencies to persuade.

The first campaign is to persuade oneself to run. Others may urge it; the potential candidate himself may want to do it. (If he or she doesn't really want to run, running is a bad idea, as I have told more than one potential candidate in recent years.) The sort of person we want to run tends to be busy already with a variety of significant commitments, so this campaign can be the hardest and longest of the four.

The second campaign is to persuade one's spouse and family, if there are such. This campaign can be difficult, too. I have seen candidates who wanted and were preparing to run back out at almost the last minute, because a spouse would have nothing to do with the idea.

The third campaign is the first public one, the primary campaign, assuming there are more than two candidates per post. A challenger doesn't have to win this campaign, just place fairly high. For example, this year, with two four-year city council seats available, one simply needs to finish fourth in the September primary, in order to advance to the general election. In 2007 there was no primary. In 2005 one of the primary races narrowed a field of nine candidates to four, for two seats. If there are incumbents running, and they are not unusually unpopular, the typical effect of the primary is to reduce the field to just the incumbents and the most capable challengers.

The fourth campaign is the general one, where a field of two candidates per post is narrowed to one. That election is in November, on -- if memory serves -- the first Tuesday after the first Monday of the month.

Each of these four campaigns can demand a great deal of time and effort, for challengers especially, but also for incumbents.

Why and Why Not?

I've seen capable incumbents and potential challengers decide not to run for a host of reasons. Some don't want to serve with a particular official who is already in office or is expected to be. Some have no great fondness for hate mail from the scattering of people in any population who cannot be bothered to examine issues thoroughly before deciding which position is just and divine, and which originated -- like its advocates -- in the nether regions. Some see significant fiscal or other challenges ahead, and don't want to be the ones to take the heat. Some simply cannot afford the time and energy, especially in view of the meager part-time salary of an American Fork elected official. Some recoil at the thought of being in the public eye. Some are content not to run as long as other capable candidates are running. Some, including -- almost unbelievably -- some Mormons who are not particularly busy in their church assignments, feel that their church service completely absolves them of any moral or religious obligation to serve their community.

The reasons for running vary just as widely. They range from selfishness to altruism. Blind lust for power doesn't seem to be much of a factor in a small city -- there is little power there -- and the money is not such as to tantalize candidates with the possibility of wealth, easy or otherwise. One reason I see rather frequently in candidates and potential candidates might surprise some cynics: They see things needing to be done that aren't being done, and they don't see other capable leaders stepping forward in sufficient numbers . . . so they run.

In any case, it's common for a potential candidate to find the reasons to run evenly matched with the reasons not to run. Consequently, there are probably potential challengers out there, and possibly some incumbents, who don't yet know whether they will run, who may change their minds a few times between now and the end of the filing period, and who may surprise even themselves with their final decision. This doesn't necessarily make them flaky or indecisive. It may simply mean that they are serious and thoughtful.

A Little Influence Now Beats a Lot Later

Many of the important decisions in self-government are made long before the polls open. If there's an incumbent you want to keep, or someone else you think should challenge an incumbent, you have about six weeks to make your case. After that, the first two of those four campaigns will be over, the field of candidates will already be set, and you will be left to choose from a list of candidates into which you had no input whatsoever.

If you don't see anyone running who appears likely both to win and to govern well, in your judgment . . . you may simply need to get better acquainted with the candidates and their views. If that doesn't do it for you, is it unreasonable of me to suggest that you have a duty to help the city find someone who can win and will govern well? It may be an incumbent or someone else who is already considering a run. It may be someone who hasn't yet considered the possibility seriously. And here's a chilling thought: it may be you.

Heidi Rodeback comments (6/6/2009):

This is an insightful piece, particularly in the discussion of the four campaigns. I cannot comment on your analysis of public perception as I am cast in the wrong role for objectivity. However, I do want to acknowledge that for the last two years the City has benefited by the professional advice of Linda Walton for public information needs. Regrettably, her contract is one of the casualties of the City's budget shortfalls, so she will not be continuing with us after July 1.

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