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Friday, September 23, 2005
I Met the Candidates, Part I: General Impressions and the Also-Rans

This and the two following articles are my own thoughts and impressions, based mostly on two and a half hours I spent at a meeting. Some of what following is first impressions of people I had not met, heard, or read before. First impressions are often even less reliable than second and third and tenth impressions, but in four of nine cases discussed here, they are all I have. It is possible that one or more candidates simply had a particularly good or particularly bad evening, and that those candidates' performance there was not representative. It is virtually certain that each candidate left after the event with some thoughts about what he or she should not have said but did, should have said but didn't, or should simply have said better. If you disagree with my impressions, feel free to use the link at the end of the article to comment.

Last evening I joined about 60 other American Fork residents and nine candidates for city council (the two open four-year terms) at the Senior Center in American Fork for the first of two pre-primary meet-the-candidates events. The other is next Thursday evening at the same location, this time featuring mayoral candidates and the candidates to fill the second half of Tom Hunter's vacated term. Last night's event suffered a bit from inadequate planning and publicity, but still provided a useful opportunity to get acquainted with the candidates - some of whom I did not know before last night. The notes which follow are not intended as a comprehensive report, but as a collection of personal impressions. In some cases they are first impressions of candidates, and prone to the incompleteness of a first impression. And you need to know that I have a conflict of interest: My wife, Heidi Rodeback, is one of the candidates. (I think she did well; apparently, a lot of folks thought that. You can read her tongue-in-cheek declaration of victory at her blog.)

It's a lot of work to organize such an event, and organizers Keith Richan and Judy Price deserve our gratitude for their efforts this week and next. They could improve the event next week by remembering to have the opening statements they promised the candidates; allowing between 15 and 90 seconds per candidate per answer, depending on the question, instead of two minutes; sticking to their promised ending time; and not abandoning their format in the last half hour in favor of a free-for-all. (The free-for-all was instructive, in that certain candidates stood out and others shrank back, but - speaking as a sometime organizer of such events - you really should stick to the format you described to the candidates when you invited them. It's basic etiquette.)

My first impression upon arriving came as I walked from my car to the Senior Center. It was that the City must have abolished its sign ordinance and not told anyone. Otherwise, current councilman and mayoral candidate Shirl LeBaron would not have placed his signs on public property, just outside each entrance to the Senior Center, right? (I should ask him about that.) On the other hand, Councilman LeBaron is the most savvy campaigner among the three mayoral candidates. He adopted a table in the main hall that wasn't being used for the actual event, spread it with campaign literature and decorations, and lurked there, before and after the actual event, talking to people and, generally, campaigning. It was a public place and a public political event, with plenty of room and a lot of unused tables, so it's hard to see a problem, except for the signs outdoors. The other two mayoral candidates, Heber Thompson and George Brown, were present for the event and actively mingling before and after it, but did not campaign at Councilman LeBaron's level on this occasion. Perhaps they had their reasons, or maybe it just didn't cross their minds and they weren't prepared to do it at the last minute, when they saw their opponent doing it. Either way . . . advantage LeBaron.

Five candidates seemed broadly well-informed on the issues and prepared to discuss them. These were the two incumbents, Councilwoman Belmont and Councilman Cates; former police chief Terry Fox (who has years of city council and city staff meetings under his belt); Heidi Rodeback; and Harold Smith. Each knew some things the others didn't, some of them even seemed to know a couple of things that aren't exactly so. But in general they were well-prepared and conversant with major issues, such as our high-speed Internet system and its financial challenges, the City's financial woes generally, problems with improper building in Mountain Meadows and elsewhere, managing growth, pressurized irrigation, law enforcement, and nuisance abatement.

This blog entry focuses on the other four candidates (the next two entries will discuss the other five). They are Andy Dobmann, Rulon Jensen, Lowell Magneson, and Robert Palfreyman. Each had his moments, but clearly none is city council material - at least not yet, not now, when the City faces some difficult, very complex, immediate challenges. They did a lot of hand-wringing about problems, spent a lot of time saying something should be done, and then, typically, either sat down without suggesting any specific, workable solutions, or said how much they liked some other candidate's idea. Still, there were some highlights from them, too, and each has his own charm. Above all, their willingness to get involved personally is commendable.

Lowell Magneson, a relative newcomer to American Fork, tried too hard to be eloquent. He had some passionate, prepared little speeches, but they lacked both theoretical depth and coherence and a sound, practical application of principles to actual issues. Generally, I don't so much disagree with his views or philosophy as think they are untempered by actual experience wrestling with and solving real issues in the City. He is obviously intelligent and passionate; if he were to get involved in a serious way with City government in some useful volunteer role and spend a lot of time learning from the people who make things work, he could soon be ready for some volunteer committee leadership and could eventually make a pretty attractive city council candidate.

Robert Palfreyman is somewhat charismatic and definitely enthusiastic, but came off as too slick by half (not the same as articulate) and rather light on substance. He was inclined to say the City should do something about a given issue, but not what, specifically. When he occasionally got specific, he usually seemed to follow his heart (or his interpretation of the audience's heart), without consulting his head about how what he advocated might really fit into the actual political, fiscal, and administrative realities of a city. He doesn't strike me as someone who could hit the ground running if elected. I don't doubt his willingness to work hard and find solutions, but I question whether he currently has the skills and knowledge to reason his way under pressure to realistic, politic decisions on difficult issues, then represent them clearly and logically to the public. (Admittedly, there are some current Council members who don't meet this high standard themselves.) Still, he is young and enthusiastic, and some good real-(political)-world experience at a lower (volunteer) level might do wonders.

Rulon Jensen, a long-time resident of the city, was a personable, even delightful throwback to the days (if they ever really existed) when American Fork was small, tame town, and it was enough for leaders to be kind, well-liked, and homespun. He was a tad light on substance and detail, too, but there was no pretense about him when he spoke - a refreshing thing among political candidates. My favorite Rulon Jensen moment was after Harold Smith had flown off the handle about nuisance abatement being some sort of plot to take away our freedom and our property. Mr. Jensen responded with a recent personal experience. Enforcement officer Jim Hardy and AFPD Lieutenant Darren Falslev had approached him about the unsightly presence of ten junk cars on his property. At first, he was irritated that they wanted him to get rid of his prides and joys. But he found the gentlemen calm, persistent, and helpful, including in the matter of actually arranging the cars' removal, and ultimately decided that getting rid of them was a good thing for him and for the neighborhood. As a strong proponent of better nuisance abatement, I welcomed his testimonial. (I hope Mr. Smith doesn't have to have two crack houses and one illegal auto mechanic shop set up as his immediate neighbors before he learns that people who care about nuisance abatement are not necessarily Nazis trying to reinvent the Holocaust - his comparison, not mine. Then maybe he'll have a nice conversion story for us next time.) A delightful, sincere, unpretentious gentleman, Mr. Jensen is nevertheless a candidate for another time, not the present one.

Andy Dobmann is an emigrant from Germany who wants American Fork never to become like Germany. As far as I could gather, he means Germany has too many laws, too many taxes, high unemployment, and an unsustainable welfare-state approach to government. I'm with you on that one, Andy. Germany's problems are current, massive, and real, not just theoretical future possibilities. Candidate Dobmann had some attractive political principles in his capable mind, but, like a number of his peers, also suffers from an inadequate (but curable) understanding of the issues and, I think, still lacks a sense of how American Fork City works. But with some good years of experience at lower levels, on a volunteer committee or two, he might blossom into an attractive candidate. I'd root for him, too. He came to our country, obtained his citizenship, and is diving right into self-government, which is fun to watch and also pretty cool. Someone in the City needs to find him some meaningful volunteer work to do, recruit him to it, and treat him well, so that we don't squander his enthusiasm. If 5000 American Forkers were equally determined to be involved in their government, the world would change - at least our part of it would.

None of these four has much of a chance in the primary election, let alone the general election. But I'm glad they're involved. It's good for the debate and good for the city.

Part II focuses on Harold Smith, and Part III discusses the four real contenders.

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