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Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Meet the Remaining Candidates, PTA Style, Part II

The second hour of Friday evening's PTA-sponsored meet-the-candidates event featured the six candidates for three City Council seats. The sound system wasn't any better in the second hour than in the first; most candidates wisely abandoned it and relied on their raised but unamplified voices. As far as I could tell, candidates were each given 60 seconds to answer each question, which is enough and also tends to keep the discussion moving more vigorously than two minutes per candidate per question.

One unexpected feature of the format displeased me at first, but eventually grew on me. Only three candidates were allowed to answer each question, not all six. (Which three was varied according to a preplanned rotation.) At first, I thought it might be a real disadvantage to some candidate or other, depending on who got to answer which questions. But, as it proceeded, I decided that it worked pretty well. A lot more questions were asked and answered - twice as many as could have been otherwise. And if any candidate really wanted to answer a question when it hadn't been his or her question to answer, there were two obvious recourses: either answer the next question very quickly and use the rest of the allotted time to answer the earlier question, or deal with it in the closing statement.

As with the earlier hour, I will attempt as best I can a play-by-play of this hour. My notes are not complete, and I lack access to a tape or transcript. I noted the subject of each question, not the actual wording, so my wording may differ. If any candidate feels unfairly or inaccurately dealt with, there is a link at the bottom of the page for replies. Use it.

Note that Juel Belmont, Jimmie Cates, Terry Fox, and Heidi Rodeback are running for two four-year city council seats. Dale Gunther and Marc Ellison are running for a single half-term (vacated by former Councilman Tom Hunter). Also note that I am related to one of these candidates; feel free to question my objectivity.

Opening Statements

Councilwoman Belmont, in a nod to the event's sponsoring organization, noted that she had served for eight years in the PTA, and her mother was the first PTA president at American Fork High School. She talked about running for the third time on the same platform: quality of life.

Fox expressed admiration for the collective wisdom of a great field of candidates. He quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt to the effect that the voters are the real rulers in a democracy. He said they should be treated fairly and politely, and should be listened to.

Ellison presented himself as a combination of needed fresh perspective (he came from the Washington, DC, area in 1998) and roots in the community (he has some). He noted that he has worked at Timpanogos Cave for years and has also been involved in the Boy Scouts of America. He dredged up the same, now exhausted, joke we heard last month, about candidates who first see themselves as public servants, and end up, after re-election, thinking they are God.

Councilman Cates said he has lived in American Fork, by choice, for decades. He has seen many changes. American Fork was, is, and should remain a family-friendly city.

Gunther lived his first 20 years in Lehi, then moved as an adult to American Fork, where, essentially, he has lived and done business ever since. He is a proponent of long-range strategic planning, with plenty of public involvement.

Rodeback said that American Fork knows her as someone who gets things done; she cited parks, nuisances, and volunteer efforts, including the tree-planting campaign which saved the City about $18,000. She wants to preserve what is good about American Fork as we face the changes that are coming and in process; good, careful planning is key.

In my view, all six candidates did a good job characterizing themselves in their brief opening statements. No losers here.

The EASY Program (again!)

Fox, the retired police chief who recommended against City adoption of the program two years ago, answered first. He had some actual facts to contribute, which almost made up for us having to endure the question again. (It came up rather unimpressively last month.) He noted that it originated in Cedar City as an attempt to keep college students from drinking. It would have required clerks at establishments which sell liquor to take a training class, for which there would have been a fee. It would have required them to be fingerprinted, for which there would have been a fee. He noted that in American Fork the vast majority of alcohol consumed by youth is obtained in private homes, not purchased by the youth themselves in stores, so the applicability of EASY to American Fork is questionable. However, he noted that the program has been moderated recently and may be worth another look.

Ellison made the insightful point that if our standards are not comparable to those of neighboring communities, so that it is easier for youth to buy alcohol in American Fork than elsewhere, we will attract illicit alcohol buyers from around the valley. We should adopt the same standards as those neighboring communities, to discourage violations. Apparently, this includes EASY, which he favors.

Cates said we should look at it to see if it adds anything useful to our present ordinances and embrace it if it does. We should enforce the ordinances we have now. (I'm not aware that enforcement of those statues is lacking now.) And he noted the wisdom of spending a few tax dollars to help avoid teenage drinking, which leads to millions of dollars of public expenditures to address resulting social problems.

I give this question to Fox, who had excellent information, though Ellison and Cates made useful points.

What Will You Do to Maintain and Support a Central Business District?

Gunther noted Downtown American Fork, Inc.'s, (DAFI) involvement in helping businesses. He mentioned the need to attract niche businesses, which would complement, not compete with, the big-box development to the west. He said he is not interested in raising taxes to help downtown businesses.

Rodeback said it's important to raise awareness of these needs and opportunities. She said it is not true, as some have suggested, that DAFI asked the City to give money to downtown businesses. She mentioned a customer service training seminar DAFI recently sponsored to help local businesses. She said that downtown is the city's central image, which affects prospective businesses' and residents' judgments of what kind of city American Fork is.

Belmont noted the important of historic preservation, a cause for which she has worked for years. She has been a small business owner. The pleasant and vibrant downtown she remembers can happen again.

I give this question to Rodeback, for articulating the importance of downtown to the rest of the city, with Gunther a close second.

How Much Are City Councilors Paid? Is It Fair? Would You Vote for an Increase?

Ellison said it's $500 per month, plus $500 for expenses. This is adequate; he would not favor an increase. Cates said he would not favor an increase, either, because if public service becomes lucrative, it attracts people who want to serve for the wrong reasons. Gunther would not favor an increase, and intends, if elected, to donate part or all of his compensation to the arts. This is a toss-up; no clear winner. (I know Gunther well enough to believe that his promise is sincere, but still sounded a bit like a campaign gimmick to my cynical ear.)

What Will You Do to Ensure Children's Safety in Going to and from School? (Specifically, Sidewalks.)

Rodeback emphasized the importance of this issue and noted that funding is currently available from the City to pay half the cost of replacing or installing a sidewalk. She mentioned Orem, where the City takes responsibility for sidewalks, which it owns. (American Fork City owns the sidewalk in front of my home, but if someone trips and breaks a leg, I'm the one who gets sued.) She suggested that we look into following Orem's example (which I favor, though I recoil a little at my uninformed sense of how much that might cost). She wants to put neighborhoods to work on this and other improvements.

Belmont (who has more time in elected City office than all other American Fork candidates this year combined) emphasized that she knows how the City works. Sidewalk installation is required when a property is developed. She noted that this and everything else seems to be development-driven, and suggested that citizen pressure on the City would help.

Fox noted that the City recently paid for sidewalks along 150 West, near 1120 North, and that he had worked with PTAs on that and on a traffic signal and a four-way stop near the Junior High. He thinks the City could afford to address the sidewalk problem a little at a time.

I'll split the point on this question between Fox and Rodeback; I liked both answers. Belmont's response seemed not to appreciate that sidewalks are a major problem in the older, already developed areas of the city.

What Can You Do About the Bad Traffic on My Street?

Cates said that, if we listened to the developers, we'd have lots of narrow streets, but our plans necessarily include larger "collector" streets. He asserted the importance of providing adequate connections between the parts of the city north and south of the freeway, so that we are not a divided city.

Gunther noted that sometimes good plans go awry or become obsolete. He advocated long-term planning with ample citizen input.

Rodeback said we need to adhere to the general plan. We need collector streets, and cannot leave them to developers. She advocated that the City take a proactive approach to improving traffic patterns, using some of the revenues from development.

No clear winner on this question. To me, they all made sense.

If the Harrington School Is Developed into Something that Attracts People, Where Is There Enough Parking?

Belmont mentioned state downtown guru Bim Oliver and implied that he recommends we do a good study to see if we already have enough. Fox noted that major usage periods are staggered. The City needs parking during weekdays, arts events in the evening, churches on Sunday, and so forth. If we work well with our neighbors, we may find we already have adequate parking. Ellison said, don't buy the Harrington School. We could probably get it donated. (That was not the question.) This question goes to Fox on substance.

What Is Your Vision for Development on 900 West?

Gunther said we should adhere to the zoning and insure there is a buffer between residential and commercial areas.

Rodeback noted that it's a complex matter, complicated by the desire for a walkable neighborhood that is safe for children. She noted the existence of the CC-2 zone, which is intended as a buffer between residential and commercial (CC-1).

Belmont spoke in defense of neighborhoods. She hears residents pleading with the City not to turn their neighborhoods into garbage dumps, not to change their neighborhoods. The way to affect these things is for the people to get involved.

Rodeback wins this question on the strength of clear technical detail. Gunther was good, too. Belmont was not directly on point.

How Can We Establish a Visible Community Standard Regarding the Sale of Inappropriate Materials?

Fox said we need to complete the legal investigation of our options, and that we should not try to reinvent the wheel, but should see what is working best in other communities. He said a major question to address is how zoning will determine where adult materials can be sold and where they cannot. (Legally, this is probably a more reasonable position than simply insisting that there is no place at all in the city for such retailers - but it might displease folks who don't realize this is more than a purely moral, purely black-and-white issue.)

Ellison said, not for the first time, I think, that he has six children. He said he would do all in his power to keep such bad influences out of their city. He did not say what, precisely, might be in his power.

Cates is totally opposed to such businesses existing anywhere in the city at any time. It's a cancer that is destroying families. (True, but will a total ban hold up in court?) He also said we should look at our sister cities, see what's working, and make sure what we do is enforceable.

I essentially agree with all three, but I give Fox this question, for his effort to translate his real opposition clearly into useful regulatory concepts.

How Can We Integrate Our Growing Hispanic Population into the Community?

Rodeback noted that she descends from Danish immigrants. She said it is important to have a welcoming attitude; to teach English as a second language, so that immigrants can succeed in American society; and to rely on cohesive neighborhoods. This last, she said, is where the City can be involved. We should revive Neighbors in Action, in part to increase sociality in our neighborhoods. She noted that LDS ward and stake boundaries divide neighborhoods unnaturally (albeit, sez I, unavoidably), and offered organized neighborhoods as an antidote to this fragmentation.

Belmont said the community does a good job being inclusive at church (if I decipher my notes correctly). She said neighbors should help immigrants find housing, work, etc. She talked about her sister, who teaches school in an inner city, where there are 60 languages and the turnover from year to year is about 80 percent. We need to welcome and help newcomers.

Fox noted that literacy is the key, and said that, as a community, we need to support the work of our Literacy Center. Literacy helps immigrants to integrate, to find jobs, etc.

Kudos to all three for avoiding the catechism of political correctness on this question. Fox and Rodeback win on substance.

How Important Is Prior City Government Experience, and Why?

Ellison noted that neither he nor his opponent, Gunther, has such experience. He thinks that values are more important. He made, rather more deftly than before, his insinuating little speech about how it's important to consider whom a candidate will represent - the people generally (Ellison, in his own mind), or an interest group or a specific part of town (Gunther, in Ellison's mind).

Cates (an incumbent) said that experience is very important, that it takes time to become effective. (Note from me: That's why the terms are four years, not one.) He said - and I offer a rare direct quote, because I wrote it down - because I'm not sure what it means - "Changes disrupt the process of accomplishment."

Gunther noted that George Washington had no experience in political office when he was elected President, and he did fine. He said he has a lot of experience in business and elsewhere that is transferable. He has attended a lot of city council meetings.

Gunther wins this one, because I understood everything he said, and because he didn't try to be clever and (figuratively) wink at the audience while shooting little barbs at his opponent.

What About City Spending? Where Have We Done Poorly? What About Tax Dollars for The Meadows?

Belmont noted that she is "the dissenter." She voted no on the Meadows. She voted no on the broadband purchase, and she isn't sure we can fix the system to make it solvent.

Fox said that, as police chief, he managed a large budget and sometimes released funds to other departments, where they were needed, rather than simply spending every dollar he was given. (What I don't know is whether some of those funds might have been used to increase police salaries.) He thinks we rushed into the broadband deal, but he has the service at his home and loves it. Departments should not ask for things they don't need.

Ellison said the City should never compete with private industry. (He means the broadband system, and seems impervious to arguments that it is a public utility. Moreover, I myself can speak from experience that the private sector has not been particularly good at providing broadband in American Fork.) He said expending City funds on The Meadows was unnecessary, and that he would have voted against the broadband purchase. He said we could have had AirSwitch for free, but instead we bought the system we have now. (He doesn't know they're the same system; he's remembering a candidate speculating last month that if we had waited, AirSwitch would have defaulted on its obligations to the City, and the City could have taken possession of the system without paying for it - a notion which raises more questions, for me, than it answers.)

Fox wins this question almost by default, but his answer was not a masterpiece.

What Single New Endeavor Would Bring Pride and Distinction to American Fork?

Cates said it's a good question and needs a lot of thought, then ventured to say the arts. He remembered fondly the Pageant of the Arts, which we somehow let fade away years ago, and presumably should revive. (Not a bad idea at all.)

Gunther said the arts. He threw around some statistics, which seemed believable, but which I did not record, and noted that, despite high involvement, our arts programs are essentially homeless. We should fix that.

Rodeback went way out on a limb ("out on a limb" was her phrase, "way" is my contribution). She said, Support development of the Harrington School. She didn't propose that the City sink millions of dollars into it. She said: (a) Allow use of the historical building code, which would make development less costly but still earthquake-safe; (b) help the owner find good tenants; and (c) repair the Harrington's relationship with the City, which has been quite adversarial. She noted that the Harrington could be an anchor for downtown, just as downtown should be an anchor for the whole city.

I myself have nothing against the arts, and I was more than a little surprised at Rodeback's answer. I award her this question, for taking a risky topic and talking sense about it, by proposing very reasonable, affordable measures.

Closing Statements

Rodeback presented herself as one who gets action. She gets the facts, pursues a consensus, then plans and takes action. She forges meaningful relationships with all stake-holders. She gets the most bang out of the fewest bucks. For example, she took a Neighbors in Action budget of $2000 or $3000 and organized volunteers to plant trees in parks, saving the City about $18,000. Neighborhoods are important and are the solution to many problems; they need to be organized.

Gunther noted his commitment to long-range strategic planning and budgeting. Impulse buying is bad for the City just as for individuals. (Was this a reference to the broadband purchase?) Then he launched into a Chinese parable, in which everyone in the afterlife is given chopsticks so long that they cannot be used to feed oneself. In hell the people starve in frustration. In heaven, they feed each other, and they all enjoy a wonderful feast. (If you had told me that a candidate would conclude his closing statement with something about wanting to get to heaven, I’d have winced. But he pulled it off nicely, in an essentially secular mode.)

Cates noted that his signs say he has integrity. (I've worked with him. I believe he has integrity. I also believe that if you have integrity, you don't have to advertise it, and if you advertise it too prominently, people like me may suspect you don't have it.) He emphasized the need for continuity. He noted that many years ago, downtown parking was an issue, and it still is. Pressurized irrigation was an issue (and federal money was available), and it still is an issue. His point was that these issues go on almost forever, so it helps to have someone who's been around, who knows the ins and outs and history of issues. (I think his evidence proves a different point: That we need a city council which will resolve issues, not just talk about them endlessly.) He asserted that we loose millions of dollars by not enacting what the Council votes for.

Ellison brandished a copy of The Federalist, and referred to James Madison on the subject of factions, which, in Madison, are bad. (Ellison's translation of faction: special interests, meaning his opponent, who cares more than he does about downtown and about the arts.) He said special interests are taking over, and we need people who will make the best decisions for the whole community. We should fund pressurized irrigation before we fund the arts. (I don't think any candidate disagrees.) Next, he produced his copy of a history of American Fork, which he has read. (I haven't.) We have a heritage; we need to protect it. (Did I mention he has six children? He did, yet again. Also, I'm told he also had a third book with him, Philip K. Howard's 1996 bestseller, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. I wonder what he would have said about that.

Fox took up Gunther's theme of long-term strategic planning and applied it to human resources issues. He stressed the importance of continuing the Strategic Safe Schools Initiative. We have 9000 kids in school on any given school day . . . He also told of visiting Los Angeles with his 17-year-old son, who pointed out that downtown LA is a dump - like downtown American Fork, said the young man. ('Nuff said?)

Belmont noted that she has been involved in city activities for about 30 years (during which, may I say, she has done much good). It started when the City tried to rezone a lot 34 feet from her house from residential to industrial. She fought the City and won. (I'm told the site is now Evergreen Park.) When she took over, the Beautification Committee hadn't met in five years; that has changed. She was Arbor Day Chair. She spent six years on the Planning Commission, pulling largely for one cause: tree-lined streets. She saw a lot of development that didn't match the approved plans. She has been on the City Council for eight years. She said that a beautiful, clean town is the best economic strategy.

I thought Rodeback and Fox had the best closing statements. Gunther gets honorable mention partly for substance, and partly for style - meaning getting away with the Chinese parable. Belmont gets honorable mention more for her long and substantive record of public service than for tonight's recitation of it. Cates tried to make the case for continuity, but ended up making the case for change. Ellison would at least win points with me for candor if he would quit winking and just say outright that his opponent represents special interests and merits James Madison's disapproval (a misreading of both Madison and Gunther).

In Conclusion

Here, again, we have a strong field of candidates. (See also my thoughts on political courage.) I think Fox, Rodeback, and Gunther are the strongest; tonight did nothing to change that opinion. In fact, I think it illustrated why I think so. That said, the other three are fine people, and the two incumbents have served honorably and, in some ways, very well. And there's something quite positive to be said about a man who both knows his Federalist and reads his history.

Finally, kudos again to Representative John Dougall, a fine moderator, and to Leslie Dalton, chief PTA organizer of the evening, and everyone else who helped her. This includes the timekeeper, whose name I forgot to note, and who probably played the most important unsung role of the evening.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) evening features another similar event, this one sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce and held at the American Fork Library. (Dougall is the scheduled moderator again.) Thursday evening brings yet another, the final of three such events sponsored by local figures Keith Richan and Judy Price. This may be too much of a good thing, but it is, in the final analysis, a good thing.

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