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Friday, September 23, 2005
I Met the Candidates, Part III: Contenders

After Part I's general observations and discussion of four candidates, and Part II's notes on Harold Smith, this final part focuses on the contenders. It, too, consists of my own thoughts and impressions, based mostly on two and a half hours I spent at a meeting, but it is also informed somewhat by my personal knowledge of the candidates. It is likely that some candidates and their supporters will disagree with most of what follows. It is possible that they will link my own preferences are coloring my observations and analysis, expecially since my wife, Heidi Rodeback, is one of the candidates. In any case, there is a link at the end to allow them or anyone else to coment.

Barring something truly bizarre or vicious, the four candidates to survive American Fork's October 4 primary election (for the two full, four-year city council terms) will be the two incumbents, Councilman Cates and Councilwoman Belmont, and the two solid challengers, Terry Fox and Heidi Rodeback. They all were articulate (in varying degrees), demonstrated a good command of a wide range of issues, know how the City works, and seem to be able (in varying degrees) to evaluate individual issues sensibly in the context of all other issues.

Councilman Cates did a nice job on more than one occasion of bringing the discussion back down to earth and placing it in the context of political, fiscal, and administrative realities. Predictably, he displayed an insider's command of issues and facts, and once he even resurrected the classic incumbent's technique of mentioning that interesting things are going that he's not yet at liberty to discuss. I was surprised to hear him refer once or twice to City Council decisions as "suggestions" which ought to be heeded. I would be tempted to think that he merely misspoke, if this didn't dovetail so neatly with my own observations of the Council generally. They appear to see themselves generally as some kind of advisory board that approves site plans and allocates money. They have to do some of that, of course, but are they not also to be a legislative body that makes, amends, and repeals laws, not mere suggestions?

Councilwoman Belmont sees herself as the grande dame of American Fork politics. She served for a while on the Planning Commission and is running now for her third consecutive term on the City Council. She was there three years ago when this thing happened, and commiserated with her constituents five years ago on their front porches when that thing happened. She's been thinking and talking about the other thing for a long time. Last evening, I'm told, she was rather ill, which is probably why her energy seemed to fade quite a bit as the evening wore on. Perhaps that's also why she played the "I've been around" gambit too long and too far. When a two-term incumbent running for re-election notes that the City was fiscally well-off eight years ago, when she took office, and is now in a shambles, and she wonders what happens, and thinks we ought to do something to fix the problem, someone ought to ask her (1) why she didn't lead the charge to stop the decline, and (2) how she, having been on the Council all those years, could possibly not know what happened. When she bemoans having been the "1" in countless 4-to-1 Council votes, one wants to note that one of the qualities of leadership is persuading others to your side of an issue at least enough to make slow, incremental progress.

Finally, I was amused that Councilwoman Belmont spoke at length about her founding of American Fork Neighbors in Action, then talked about a period when the organization was especially successful under the leadership of a particular individual. Perhaps she had a different person and period in mind, but, ironically, the woman who presided over Neighbors in Action's most productive period was sitting next to her, in the person of Heidi Rodeback. (When Heidi resigned after two years, the City didn't bother to appoint a replacement, even with Councilwoman Belmont on duty; draw your own conclusions about that one.)

I was struck repeatedly by an odd thing: The incumbents were not running on actual accomplishment, for the most part. They were talking like challengers. Maybe it was just the effect of being surrounded by seven challengers, but I doubt it. They were full of good thoughts and good ideas, things they think the City Council should do. That's a dicey gambit, too. I can't possibly have been the only one who noted this and wanted to ask, "Why haven't we heard these great ideas at City Council? You've been on the Council for years." Or, "If the Council should do these things, why haven't you had a least a little success in moving the Council toward doing these things?" Again, an essential attribute of leadership is persuading and building consensus, activities which are qualitatively the opposite of sitting back, waiting for all the motions to come to vote, so you can vote one way or another and be done.

Recently-retired AFPD Chief Terry Fox is bright, somewhat charismatic, and has a good head for administrative issues. He has seen and suffered the City's growing administrative inadequacy and dysfunction for years, and sees fixing that as the key to resolving a number of other major issues. (I find this convincing - but I was already convinced.) He worked the audience effectively last night, slipping gracefully into something of a teacher mode. I didn't grin with sheer delight at every little thing he said, but most of his views are fairly close to mine. I think his was one of the two best performances of the evening. I found myself imagining how much good might be done by a council member with his detailed knowledge of the City, his administrative passion and prowess, and his evident ability and inclination to make things understandable to the general public.

Last night Fox established himself publicly as a legitimate contender. (To me he already was.) This means there will be trouble, but it was not in evidence last night. It's impossible to be a police chief for several years and not offend or anger some people. Assuming he survives the primary, which I think he will, he can look forward to being the focus of some dirty, anonymous politicking. The attack may come before the primary, but I doubt it. That would be a tactical error by the anonymous cowards. He'd still win in the primary, and then he'd have time to combat the libel and slander before the general election. So watch for the major attack to come within five or six days of the November 8 general election, either in the mail or in the last weekly newspaper before Election Day. Meanwhile, someone with something to gain is already quietly spreading some nasty rumors about this particular challenger. I won't dignify them here by repeating their slanderous substance, but I will say that I have seen first-hand, convincing evidence that they are false. I have seen nothing first-hand to suggest that they are true.

Now it's time for the last (not least) candidate and one more disclaimer. You should realize that Heidi Rodeback, my wife, is running for City Council and also participated last evening. I helped her campaign manager coach her for last night's event, and I helped with some evaluation of her performance. You are free to doubt my objectivity in what follows. I'm not going to tell you my whole evaluation or all the reasons why I think hers was the other of the two best performances of the evening, because it is not my place to reveal campaign strategy. But I will say this much . . .

She is the other legitimate threat to unseat an incumbent in November. She has developed a reputation for being an effective organizer and communicator over the past few years, in various volunteer roles in the community. She essentially stayed on message last night, bringing most of the several questions discussed back to her central themes: empowering and involving volunteers and the neighborhoods, getting things done (instead of just talking about them endlessly), safeguarding our quality of life (in each neighborhood) even as we experience the challenges of continued growth, increasing the professionalism of the City's administration and image, and restoring long-term fiscal sanity. Several times, I overheard audience members whispering to each other that she was talking the most sense of any of the candidates (though I have to say Terry Fox consistently talked sense, too, and others often did). Her own well-written account of one personal highlight is now at her blog.

In any case, it appears likely that we'll see the names Belmont, Cates, Fox, and Rodeback on the list of candidates moving on to the general election on the November 8 ballot. With the field thus narrowed, the next debate should be even more interesting.

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