Friday, October 30, 2009
I Met the Candidates Once More
Notes and commentary on last night's event, including scattered attempts to commit wit.
Audience, Format, Etc.
Last evening's meet-the-candidates event at American Fork's Senior Center began with an audience of about 30 people, not including candidates and organizers, but quickly grew to about 55. The candidates were seated at one end of the hall, and the audience was mostly seated at the round tables that fill the hall (unless one is so bold as to move them). There was no public address system, so the evening posed an interesting test: Which candidates can project well enough to be heard at the other end of the room? It was a fairly quiet audience, so I think the only candidate who consistently was not well heard was city council candidate Jess Green. (Logistical note: They have microphones at city council meetings.)
The format of the evening was not quite as I had heard it would be; it was better. There were opening statements -- two minutes each -- first by the mayoral candidates, then by the city council candidates. At the end there were two-minute closing statements. In between, moderator John Dougall alternated between the two groups, two questions at a time -- that is, two questions for the mayoral candidates, then two for the city council candidates, and so forth. I thought it worked well, and the candidates I asked about it seemed to like it.
Each candidate had one minute for each answer, but in many cases didn't use the full minute, which was nice. Only once did a candidate lose track of whose turn it was to answer and rush to answer out of turn. The other candidates gracefully took that in stride without embarrassing him.
Questions were submitted in advance by members of the audience. This time, I didn't submit any of my own.
I will focus here on what was new or noteworthy, especially where the candidates differentiated themselves. Some of the statements, questions, and responses were not new, but a reprise of what was said at the event two weeks ago. This is not a criticism; the issues are what they are, and they need to be discussed. But if it wasn't somehow new, I may not give it much attention in this report. Some questions were new, but everyone agreed on them, which doesn't make them very noteworthy, so I'll pass by those quickly.
I'm not trying to give a nearly-verbatim account here of all substantive responses. I did that in my reports on the mayoral and city council parts of the previous event; they totaled about 13,000 words and took hours to prepare. (Do you want to attend the event, then listen to a recording of it two or three times? I'll do lots of things once.) This time I intend to use several thousand fewer words, because I have a life, and you probably do, too, and I'm not crazy about redescribing the wheel. Please note that statements and answers I don't mention may have been better than the ones I mention. For example, I don't even mention most of the opening statements.
I am also not attempting to evaluate who won or lost the debate or any specific question; depending on your own views, I think multiple conclusions as to large and small victories are possible. You can make whatever you want of my own supposed or actual biases. I'm mixing reportage and commentary here, while, I hope, making it clear which is which. Objective or otherwise, the following is a hybrid of what I heard (more objective) and what I think (more subjective), at least as nearly as I can express it. I'm striving for accuracy in both respects.
I'm working from notes and fresh memory, mostly, with little reference to the recording I made (as before); this seems to suit my chosen approach well enough, this time.
Opening Statements and Early Questions
Mayor Heber Thompson had the second opening statement, and the interesting part of it was that he announced that he has Ed Cameron's endorsement. Cameron, who was present, finished a close third behind Thompson in the primary and thus was eliminated. His endorsement of Thompson is not a surprise; it's fairly well known that Cameron had a dispute in the past with the Engineering Department, which was then led by mayoral candidate James Hadfield. If you ask Cameron -- I did -- Hadfield was unreasonable. If you ask Hadfield -- I did -- Cameron tried to build a parking lot where the approved plan was for a building, or something like that, and wanted him to submit a new plan for approval. So take your pick. In any case, I doubt that Cameron's endorsement will shift all of his primary votes to Thompson, for two reasons. First, it came late in the race, and, second, I think it's likely that Cameron's support was as much anti-Thompson as it was pro-Cameron. But we'll see soon enough how the votes tally.
In his opening statement, city council candidate Marc Ellison declared the need for the city to receive "a complete money makeover." He didn't elaborate on that much during the evening, though others discussed fiscal issues rather a lot.
The first question went to the mayoral candidates. It asked if they would favor imitating Highland and putting council agendas and supporting materials online. American Fork actually already puts the agendas online. The supporting materials would require significant additional labor and preparation further in advance, but I myself would welcome them. I'd also like them to be projected on a screen for the public during the meeting, which wasn't mentioned. The candidates didn't really answer this specific question, but their responses were interesting, in that they noted two differences between Highland and American Fork. Thompson reported that Highland's city council doesn't have work sessions where things are discussed in depth but no action is taken; they just have regular meetings. Hadfield said that Highland doesn't post notices of impending zoning and other decisions at the property in question, as American Fork does. In both cases, I favor American Fork's approach.
A later question posed to the city council candidates asked whether they would support a webcast of city council meetings. Everyone said yes, and there were multiple witticisms about who would watch, if anyone. I'm a bit of a political junkie, but I'm not sure I would. Okay, yes, I probably would . . . sometimes . . . if the quality was good.
Mayoral candidates were asked why less than half of the City's deposited funds are insured. (Someone has been reading financial reports.) To make two one-minute stories very short, the mayoral candidates didn't know. Later, Councilman Gunther took part of his time for another question to explain that most of the City's saved funds are deposited with the state, and most of those are invested in US government securities, which technically are not insured, but are regarded as very safe. (This led to a predictable, whispered wise crack from me, directed to the gentleman sitting next to me, something to the effect of, "I hope they still are safe.")
City council candidates were asked what the most important decision would be in the next two years. They all said roads, and some of them, notably including Jess Green, added something about financial management and/or getting out of debt. Rodeback explained that road maintenance in this election is like water was in the 2005 election, the overarching issue (my term). When mayoral candidates were asked the same question later, they said roads, too. Thompson added sidewalks to the mix, and Hadfield reemphasized the need for a city administrator, of which more below.
Someone asked city council candidates if the new river trail, from 500 to 700 North, will be lit to discourage drug trafficking and other criminal activity. The most substantive answer came from Rodeback, who said she had asked before if funding for lighting was part of the federal grant for the trail, and it's not. Every candidate seemed to be in favor of lighting and opposed to crime, all else being equal.
Someone asked who has the right-of-way, a pedestrian in a crosswalk or vehicle traffic. As it happens, that didn't turn out to be a controversial question. All city council candidates agreed that the pedestrian has it. Green had the best line: "There's no pedestrian I know that can successfully stop a car."
In one of his mentions of debt, Ellison said that interest payments are "wasted in the financial community." At an earlier event, he said a similar thing, that interest just goes to enrich bankers, not the people. Think about that for a minute. Even if you don't think bankers are people, see if you don't discover that some of those interest dollars enrich investors, who could be wealthy financiers -- or they could be retired plumbers or school teachers with pension funds invested in . . . well, banks. Some of those dollars also pay bank tellers' salaries, and so forth. In other words, even dollars paid for interest don't simply enrich the plutocrats (my word), and they're not entirely wasted. (There's also an economic argument about interest being the logical and appropriate present cost of future money -- or would that be the future cost of present money? -- but we'll leave that for another day.)
Finally, Some Contrasts
A question for mayoral candidates led to the sharpest exchange of the evening. It was about their skills in managing conflict -- an intelligent question. Thompson basically said that you'd have to ask people who have seen him do it, like the police chief and the city council; that was tame enough.
Hadfield has the second response and used it to land a pretty good blow. He said that this is a big reason why he's running. He watched the mayor negotiate a boundary issue with Pleasant Grove and thought he was too quick to agree, against American Fork's interests. He saw the same thing happen with UDOT over the location of the Vineyard Connector. And he said he's seen the mayor go soft (my term, I think) on the size and timing of fees required to be paid by developers. In short, conflict resolution skills are fine, but in Hadfield's view Thompson has repeatedly been too eager to agree, to American Fork's detriment.
Thompson used part of his time for the next question to land a blow of his own in response. First, he restated (and somewhat revised) Hadfield's assertion, which turned into this: "Developers have trouble in the city because of the mayor." (Actually, Hadfield's words were more to the effect that developers don't have enough trouble in the city, because the mayor yields, but you get the idea.) Thompson said that he has the support of the local homebuilders association and the local real estate assocation, who support him because of the troubles they've had with the city, "principally" with Hadfield, when he led the Engineering Department, because he allegedly rejected reasonable proposals.
I cannot evaluate the difficulties Thompson alleged, which may have been unreasonable; may have been proper enforcement of codes, regulations, site plans, etc.; or may have been a mix of both. On one hand, I can report that, based on what I've heard over the years, from builders and others, Hadfield's is not the most common name they mumble under their breath. This suggests that, at the least, Thompson's word "principally" was an overstatement. On the other hand, Thompson himself is in a better position to see such things than I am, on an ongoing basis. On yet a third hand -- or is it back on the first? I've lost track -- politics can have somewhat unpredictable effects on perspective, memory, and objectivity, even in the mind of a well-meaning and intelligent mayoral candidates.
Neither blow was a knockout, and I can't say which was harder or better aimed, in the audience's perception. But it was good to see them finally debating their differences. Neither Hadfield nor Thompson returned to the topic later.
In between the blows, Hadfield's answer to that next question, about what he would do to revitalize downtown, was noteworthy. I liked it because it's not something that will have to wait for some future economic boom. He talked about persuading downtown business and building owners and tenants to start with little things, like sweeping their sidewalks and cleaning up the litter at their places, and he suggested that the City could do some similar things to help with the streets. I like the idea of doing what we can now, economically, instead of just talking about what we'd like to do at some unspecified future point when City coffers are flowing with milk and honey, or whatever.
The next question was for city council candidates: How will you stimulate business activity? Rodeback talked about economic development walking a fine line: cities shouldn't subsidize businesses or go into business themselves, but there are other ways to encourage businesses, through statutes, public relations, etc.
Logic unraveled briefly after that. Green's answer was to reduce water bills and keep an eye on fees; then he declared that he ran because of the "stink tax," an increase in water bills which he claims was for the benefit of a hotel being built in Pleasant Grove.
Laying aside the fact that sewer expansion and associated cost increases are much more complex than that, as Gunther later explained, there is a more fundamental disjunction here. It really is a matter of sewer bills, not water bills. Though they come on the same monthly bill, they are clearly itemized. The City largely controls water rates but not sewer rates, which are apportioned by the Timpanogos Special Service District, which involves seven cities and has its own governing board. The City has some influence on who in American Fork will bear how much of the burden; in the case of the most recent increase, it chose to spread the burden more or less equally. One might wish for clearer understanding (or expression) of such details by a veteran politician such as Green.
Green also said, "Water comes out of the canyon free," and then the City sticks its nose in and imposes a lot of costs -- as if to suggest that it shouldn't be this way. In fact, delivering that water under pressure to every household and business involves an enormous cost, which is unavoidable, assuming we want to live in a modern world with modern sanitation. And scaling the system to suit a growing city has its costs, as well, which (as we have seen) grow brutally if they are procrastinated.
Ellison emphasized that we should stimulate businesses by helping them understand that they are free to succeed or fail. (It's not the City government that tampers with that these days, sez I.) Then he cited the 330 percent water bill increases some businesses have seen recently, and gave an example of a business that didn't want to pass on the increased cost to its customers. In my view, divorcing costs from buying decisions will kill any business other than government in short order, so I'm not sure how this reinforces Ellison's point. But he did get to say "330 percent," which is a satisfyingly grim number.
Asked how they would go about resurfacing roads -- I was hoping someone would quip that they'd leave it to the professionals -- Green said, "God help us." (I see his point. Still, it's food for playful thought. At the very least, we now have a former LDS stake president, a former LDS bishop, a former LDS mission president, and a former LDS Primary president among our elected officials; perhaps they could arrange for divine intervention? Pardon the inside joke, but how much paving could the Three Nephites do in a night, while the city sleeps?)
Green said we need a maintenance plan and schedule, which I thought we had, as of rather recently, but Gunther later said was still in process. He said we need to evaluate which roads need to be repaired right away and fix those, as opposed to maintaining those that will still last a while; that's actually backwards, as Thompson pointed out later. The experts say it's more cost-effective to keep the good roads in good repair and fix the bad ones as additional funds become available, than to start with the worst ones. That seems counterintuitive, I know.
Others said on this subject what they have said before: Rodeback emphasized planning. Ellison talked about repairing the infrastructure under the roads first, by which I finally realized he means the road bed (I think). Gunther explained the currently available funding and its inadequacy.
Asked how they would stimulate business activity, both mayoral candidates talked about the importance of niche businesses downtown. No argument there. Both emphasized the need to reconsider impact fees; Thompson used the word reduce repeatedly in the context of impact fees.
Remember that impact fees are the fees developers pay the City to defray the cost of extending the City's infrastructure (roads, water, public safety, etc.) to the new development. Legally, they cannot exceed the actual cost. If they are lower than the actual cost, the City has to make up the difference from other revenues, which effectively means that the taxpayers are subsidizing developers or the people who eventually buy or rent the new homes (if it's residential development). It's worth noting that, in recent years, American Fork has had some of the highest impact fees in the area; this is at least partly because the City has reevaluated impact fees more recently than other cities have. I view this as a good thing, because it means that in other cities the taxpayers are subsidizing development to a greater degree.
Costs change continually and unpredictably, so reevaluation is certainly necessary. It is not self-evident to me that that evaluation will conclude that the present impact fees should be reduced. And when Thompson said we should consider the burden they impose, I think he missed the mark. The burden will be the same, no matter who bears it; I'd prefer that the taxpayers not bear any of it. In the end, to my mind, what matters most in setting impact fees is the actual cost to the City of extending infrastructure, not the burden it imposes on developers (or on taxpayers, if the City shifts the burden).
That said, I suspect that, if we pinned down the candidates on these details, we'd find that they are very much in agreement here. I may be making too much of a difference in expression, in my pursuit of substantive differences between the two. This issue matters a great deal, to be sure, but I'm not certain it helps us voters differentiate between the two candidates in a useful way.
Asked to comment on the supposed 49 percent property tax increase over the last four years, Gunther noted that two increases came from American Fork City, but larger increases came from the Alpine School District, and I believe he mentioned Utah County, too. Ellison suggested that the City can always find money in its budget for something important, if it wants to, without increasing taxes. (The arithmetic of this claim escapes me. Where in the budget would $49 million have come from for pressurized irrigation?) He reiterated his opposition to any tax increases in the next four years. Rodeback cited her vote for the 2006 property tax increase to fund competitive public safety salaries and her vote against the 2008 increase, which she thought ill-timed. She explained briefly the perverse effects Utah's Truth-in-Taxation law has on City budgets and pledged not to vote for any tax increases in the future until she's satisfied with the long-term planning and its priorities, and the need for a tax increase has been demonstrated to her satisfaction in that context. Green said that the incumbents were very knowledgeable on these points -- he made it sound as if that is not a really good thing -- and said he is not interested in raising taxes, but favors frugality.
Final Questions, a Few Loose Ends, and a Crucial Difference
Council candidates were asked what happened to the money budgeted for road maintenance six to eight years ago. This question acknowledges that it made little sense to rebuild roads just before the pressurized irrigation project would dig them up, but there is an open question why road maintenance was neglected for some years before that. Ellison said he doesn't know where the money went. Rodeback said she doesn't think it was ever there (in the budget). Green said we'd all like to know where a lot of money went, but he doesn't know specifics . . . but roads are important. Gunther echoed Rodeback. Note that none of the four were in office when the problem occurred.
Responding to the aforementioned question about the most important upcoming decision, Hadfield emphasized his desire to have American Fork return to its statutory form of government, with a part-time mayor and a full-time, experienced, fully qualified city administrator to run the day-to-day operations of the City. Or, if the people want to change our form of government, we should change our law. There was more discussion of this in closing statements; see below.
Asked what to do about the City's $84 million debt, Hadfield thought the number inaccurate -- the last number he has seen was $76 million -- and also talked about refinancing some of the bonds. Thompson noted that more than half of that debt is for the pressurized irrigation system, which the voters approved themselves (by a substantial margin, as I recall). Then he said the City is on schedule to pay off the Meadows infrastructure bonds early (in 2011), though he didn't say how many years early.
In the webcasting discussion I already mentioned, Green said that, in his experience, GRAMA (the Government Records and Management Act, a key part of open government regulations) doesn't work at the state level, which I thought was an interesting observation. It seems to me to work fine at the local level, though I suppose I know a person or two in American Fork who may think otherwise. I've never explored it at the state level; Green has.
A question to city council candidates about a bad railroad crossing (at 400 East) led to the mention, by the candidates and some audience members, of other troublesome crossings. The most satisfactory answer was Gunther's. He didn't know about the crossing originally in question, but made a note and said he will pursue it with the City and the railroad. I don't doubt that he will; he's rather dogged (my word) about such things.
Mayoral candidates' closing statements came first, but I'll mention them last. As to the city council candidates' statements, Rodeback repeated a fairly polished stump speech in a conversational mode, not sounding memorized or rehearsed; it's a mark of a seasoned candidate. She emphasized again that getting our plans and priorities in order will allow some funding of important quality of life issues. She promised to keep working, keep listening, keep doing her homework (my phrase), etc.
Ellison rolled out a new Ross Perot impression, by which I mean he brought charts. The first was a pyramid resting on its base, with the CEO at the top and everyone below him doing what is good for the CEO. This is probably not a good model of a good corporation, let alone a local government, but he thinks our local government is like that now. His ideal turns the pyramid upside-down, so it rests on its point, with the leader -- the servant-leader -- at the bottom, does what is good for the people. In principle, this is probably unimpeachable.
Gunther read a constituent letter which praised the mayor and city council for their responsiveness on a particular issue recently, and which singled out Rodeback for particular praise.
Green noted that he was the head of Downtown American Fork, Inc., years ago, which was succeeding in planning downtown's revitalization until a national economic downturn. He helped several cities in the area negotiate ten more years of life for Geneva Steel. He negotiated the building the "J4A3 tube," whatever that is. (A major water line?) And he repeated a point from his opening statement (not mentioned above) about the need for American Fork's leaders to show charity at home (in American Fork) rather than showing charity to Pleasant Grove (referring to the sewer/hotel shtick) and Highland (giving rather too much credence to a recent, problematic newspaper article which mentioned the sale of some water rights to Highland).
All that was interesting enough, I suppose, but the mayoral candidates' closing statements were more noteworthy. They returned to the city administrator question.
Thompson said he's saving the City $100,000 per year by serving as a full-time mayor, so the City doesn't need a city administrator. If we take him at his word as to his adequacy in the role, he's actually understating the savings. A properly qualified and experienced city manager will command a higher salary than that, I think -- perhaps on the order of $125,000 to $140,000 -- and that doesn't include the substantial additional cost of benefits.
Hadfield replied that the increases in efficiency under a good city administrator's leadership would more than offset the cost of hiring one.
This particular issue is hard to encase in a sound bite, and it may not energize the voters at large, though it certainly energizes some voters I know. Yet it is one of two crucial differences between the mayoral candidates. (The other, already discussed, is the matter of how stubborn to be in pursuing and protecting the city's interests in negotiations with other cities, other levels of government, and developers.) In the end -- not that we'll ever know -- the 2008 property tax increase may influence more votes than this issue, but even that is a tangled question, if you try to unravel it.
Observed Tendencies and Final Thoughts
I've spent so much time listening to these candidates that certain tendencies seem more prominent to me than they probably do to others. None of them is a disqualifying offense; we all have our personal quirks. Mine may be late-night verbosity and an unnatural desire to overuse the word quotidian. As to the former, it's about 1 a.m., and this post, though about 8000 words shorter than my account of the previous candidate event, is plenty long enough. As to the latter . . . quotidian. Look it up.
Though sometime quite articulate, at other times Hadfield achieves a certain terse clarity only after a couple of tries. In the end, though, he achieves it, leaving little doubt as to his meaning or his intelligence. Thompson is a smoother communicator -- some folks find him too smooth, they tell me -- and is prone to see more unanimity and clarity of thought and purpose in the city council and administration under his leadership than I myself have observed from the outside, looking in. It's an understandable difference in perspective, I suppose.
Rodeback stays on message and evaluates root causes and connections more than the other candidates (in this sort of forum), in part because she somehow manages to fit more substance into the same number of minutes (and words?). Gunther has a deep and thorough understanding of City finances, with one consistent glitch: In speaking of the impact of tax increases, he reasons from a few sample cases, not large sets of data. (As a physician I know likes to say, anecdote is not the singular form of data.)
In general -- and this is essentially inevitable -- the incumbents have a much better command of actual issues and their details than the challengers do. Thompson was an impressive exception to this as a challenger in 2005. If there is a compensating vulnerability here, it is that incumbents have actual records to defend, while challengers can mostly speak of their noble and wise principles, without having to defend voting records.
Ellison and Green, as is typical of challengers, both tend to take the worst number and treat it as a typical case -- that 600 percent (or 330 percent) water bill increase, for example. This is great rhetoric, but it overlooks the tempering fact that, in this case, the City quickly addressed the problem and made some adjustments, so in the end the increase was not nearly so high. Mostly on the plus side of the ledger, Green, more often than the others, will give his answer in a few words and be done, which is generally a welcome effect as a campaign wears on.
For his part, Ellison tonight abandoned what had been for me a rather frustrating tendency before: making generic insinuations of undue loyalty to unnamed special interests -- and, once or twice, suggesting overt corruption -- on the part of one or more unnamed incumbents. As a result, his presentation was stronger tonight than before.
There were a couple of logistical issues tonight. Numerous people in the audience had difficult hearing the unamplified candidates, especially Green, whose loud was soft, and whose soft was very soft. And there weren't name cards for each of the candidates, so I overheard some confusion among the audience as to which candidate was which. (In this, Rodeback had an obvious visual advantage.) Other than that, the format and the venue were comfortable. For that matter, the refreshments were good and, shall we say, beautifully presented. The only time I saw anyone snap a picture, it was of the lady who was tending the refreshments. In view of her radiant beauty and the crown she was wearing, I assumed (without asking) that she is the current Miss American Fork.
Representative John Dougall isn't quite so pretty and doesn't wear a crown (perhaps a bit of a halo sometimes, in some eyes?), but he did a good job moderating, as usual, and he managed to resist the temptation to ask questions in rap. (That's a little test to see if the reader is paying attention to the news. Careful with this one; the facts are not all in.)
I overheard one member of the audience before the event angrily telling his fellows that, at the last such event, Mayor Thompson said the City is not in debt at all. I did not interrupt the man to repeat what I wrote recently, dismissing that claim as a common and predictable misstatement, based on confusing the concepts of debt and budget deficit. (It's an easy mistake; sometimes it's hard enough to remember your own name when you stand in front of a group.)
By design, all the candidates lingered for a while afterward, talking with voters one-on-one, mostly. I did some talking myself -- actually, more listening than talking, trying to gauge audience impressions of the event and the candidates themselves. This is anecdote, not data, but I observed great passion about sidewalks in the city and also nuisance abatement, a subject on which I am conversant because of my own volunteer work at the City. The most entertaining raconteur I encountered in the aftermath was once and (he says) future candidate Ed Cameron. And for what it's worth, I spent a few minutes before the event commiserating with Mayor Thompson about how a small thing can pop up out of nowhere and explode into the national media before the facts are even in. At that point in the day, at least, he was philosophical about the Big Mac rap flap.
When the hall was nearly empty and I had scarfed one more chocolate chip cookie than I probably deserved, I drove my favorite candidate home. I took to blogging, only to be interrupted by the need to diagnose and repair her sewing machine. Something about a Halloween costume for tomorrow. Then back to blogging . . .
And with that, I make an end.
Copyright 2009 by David Rodeback.