David Rodeback's Blog

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Thursday, October 20, 2005
Eating Pizza in the Public Library with Candidates

Last evening the American Fork Chamber of Commerce hosted a meet-the-candidates event for the public at the American Fork Library. It was the third such event of the 2005 campaign in American Fork and the second since the primary reduced the total candidate population from sixteen to eight. State Representative John Dougall moderated; he did well, as before. Attendance peaked at about 35, not counting the candidates; this is about half the audience of the previous two events.

I posted a sort of play-by-play report of last Friday's event in two very long posts, one each about the mayoral candidates and the city council candidates. I don't intend to repeat that level of reportage for last evening's event. Life is too short, and, for the most part, the candidates said essentially what they have said before. At this point in the campaign, the candidates have their messages essentially under control. However, here are some general impressions and highlights. Please note that if I don't mention something, it's because I think it was not noteworthy (having been said before), not because I disagree or think it was not good. And if I mention something a particular candidate said, but don't mention another candidate, it's not because the other candidate's response was inferior or unsatisfactory - just less noteworthy in this context. This is not intended to be a minute-by-minute account. 

Different questions were asked of candidates for different seats, by rotation. First there was a question for the mayoral candidates, then a question for the four-year city council candidates, then a question for the two-year city council candidates. (Lather, rinse, repeat.) In a few cases, the same question or a related one was asked of more than one group, but not necessarily consecutively. It was a reasonable format.

Please note again than I am related to one of the council candidates and have opinions about all the other candidates. I am attempting to report objectively, but you should remember that my own biases may intrude, particularly in what I personally found interesting during the evening.

Once again, both mayoral candidates did well and looked and sounded, well, mayoral. Again, to me, council candidates Fox, Rodeback, and Gunther stood out from the field, though the others also generally did well. More than before - and note the bias I just mentioned - I thought Rodeback emerged as a leader among the council candidates. She distanced herself from the others on a couple of issues, while responding in a substantive way; and on several occasions, other candidates strongly echoed points she introduced. (This was a bit more subtle than when several candidates almost seemed to join the Terry Fox Fan Club in the event before the primary, but still was unmistakable.)

Surprise Winner: The surprise winner of the evening was Papa John's new Perfect Pan Pizza, complete with its new "robusto" sauce. (Is robusto a real Italian word, or just pretending?) Long a fan of Papa John's generally, I was pleased to discover that the Chamber managed to get pizza donated to feed the audience and the candidates. In return, we all filled out a brief pizza questionnaire. Is it possible that the Chamber has just set a new standard for meet-the-candidates cuisine?

Opening Statements: These were good, well delivered, and familiar. The noteworthy item here is that half-term council candidate Marc Ellison said he's running because he's afraid his property taxes will go up, and he wants to prevent that.

Job Descriptions and Employee Evaluations for City Staff (mayoral candidates): Both mayoral candidates were good and sensible on this theme. The interesting point was candidate (and Councilman) Shirl LeBaron saying, "Some of the employees may need to go back to the private sector," and should receive some help and counseling for the transition. This is the first time I've heard a candidate publicly state the obvious on this point; before tonight, none of them was willing to be this candid. I guarantee a candidate (at least a contender, which LeBaron is) thinks pretty hard about whether to say such a thing or not. Everyone knows it's true, so why antagonize voters who may be City employees (or employee family members) by emphasizing it? Because we like the candid in our candidates. (At least I do.)

Are You Willing to Cut Our Losses on the Broadband System and Walk Away? (four-year council candidates): Candidates Juel Belmont, Terry Fox, and Jimmie Cates all went wobbly, to the effect that we should dump it if we can't make it work profitably - and there wasn't a lot of optimism about the prospects. This set up candidate Heidi Rodeback for a wide-open slam dunk, and she delivered. She noted that the system is not the City competing with the private sector, but is a public sector investment to attract private sector businesses. She called it the best selling point for the City in the economic development work we need to do. Cates had expressed doubts that the City has the managerial skills to make the system work; Rodeback said, Look at the skills at just this table (the candidates). Citing recent conversations with Councilman Keith Blake and City IT director Lynne Yocum, she noted that negotiations are proceeding for the first of what should be multiple lucrative contracts to lease some of our unused bandwidth to other jurisdictions and institutions, which will put the system in the black very quickly. She cited Governor Huntsman's plan to make Utah County the state's IT capital. Note that LeBaron has already given Rodeback kudos for this response in his blog.

Pressurized Irrigation (mayoral and two-year council candidates): The interesting point is that, last week, Thompson proposed Aquifer Storage Recovery as something we should look at, as an alternative, or partial alternative, to pressurized irrigation. In doing so, and in repeating the same thought last evening, he set the stage for his opponent to call him indecisive and say, essentially, that the City did its homework and approved pressurized irrigation two years ago, and it's now time to act, not to keep talking and studying. LeBaron delivered in his turn. Thompson will want to be prepared to respond tonight, assuming the subject comes up at tonight's event.

What Is Your Economic Development Plan? (four-year council candidates): Downtown dominated the discussion, and Fox and Rodeback noted the lack of an economic development director. Cates also expressed concern for the east side. Rodeback said downtown is one case of a larger economic development dysfunction in American Fork: we have no economic development director, no economic development plan, and no economic development mindset. She noted that our previous economic development director had no job description and no budget. She said it is past time to update our 1992 strategic development plan, of which economic development should be a major component. We need an economic development director, and that official needs to be proactive in attracting businesses, by marketing American Fork's strengths. Belmont observed that she was on the committee that produced the 1992 report, which the City Council passed then "threw . . . in a drawer." She noted that the plan included $1 million in funding, which downtown never saw.

How Will You Improve Downtown Without Raising Taxes? (two-year council candidates): Ellison noted that he had lived in Alexandria, VA, which has a distinctive, historic downtown. He'd like to achieve that in American Fork. (I note that taxes tend to be a lot higher in such places in the East than they are currently in American Fork.) He wants to shop the idea of downtown improvement around to developers and large corporations, get them to bid, and see if they're interested in paying for it. (I'm not sure how this works, when it's private property we're discussing; perhaps it's our own crass exploitation of the US Supreme Court's recent, dubious Kelo v. New London verdict, which said that a municipality can take private property from one private owner and give it to another, for the municipality's economic benefit? This doesn't sound like a well-developed idea.)

What Is the Status of City Finances, and What Is Your Long-Range Plan (mayoral and four-year council candidates): In addition to the usual, relatively cogent discussion, I heard these points of interest::

  • It was noted that our arts budget this year is $20,000, while West Valley City's is $2000, and Taylorsville's is $1200. I wonder, are these municipalities representative of the Wasatch Front or Utah generally? How do Provo, Orem, Lehi, Spanish Fork, and Springville compare?
  • Fox described how, as police chief, he switched the AFPD to more economical cars, saving tens of thousands of dollars in fuel costs per year. He described a video arraignment system which would save $75,000 to 80,000 annually in prisoner transportation costs. He says similar economizing should be done across the board.
  • Rodeback noted that she was impressed with City budget officer Cathy Jensen's work in the last year and a half; this led other candidates to praise Jensen, and at greater length.
  • Thompson noted the importance of risk management to reduce the City's notorious tendency to be sued (successfully!).
  • In general, LeBaron says City finances are okay, despite challenges, and Thompson says we have some serious problems. (I'm inclined to think that we're getting by at a sort of minimal effective level, but we should be doing better, and will be when we solve some problems. A high priority for most or all candidates seems to be raising police pay to competitive levels; we at least need the money for that sort of thing, which we presently don't seem to have.)

The Eliminate Alcohol Sales to Youth Program (four-year council candidates): This came up again; no new heat or light was added. The question itself was a little different, in response to past answers, I'm sure. I can't reproduce it exactly, but the general sense was, If you knew that the fees had been removed, and if you knew that it directly addresses a real problem, and if you knew that it would usefully augment American Fork's laws, and if, and if, and if, would you be willing to reconsider it seriously? I'm rather tired of the question, but no matter. This phrasing seemed to me to invite this sort of answer: "If I knew all these things were true, sure, I'd be willing to reconsider it seriously. Now let's find out if they're really true. I'd like to use the rest of my two minutes to raise an important subject we have not yet addressed this evening. [Here follows intelligent discussion of some other subject, related or not.]" No one actually gave such a response with such brevity, but Rodeback did use the question as a jumping-off point to speak briefly of her general tendency to do her homework and find out what the facts are before acting, rather than acting on hearsay. This prompted Belmont to talk about the importance of voting no on matters she doesn't yet fully understand or that are put on the agenda too late to allow serious consideration in advance. (Notably, she and the rest of the current City Council, in their most recent meeting, rubber-stamped a controversial measure which had been slipped into an amended agenda at the last minute and without fanfare, presumably to avoid a lot of unwanted public attention and input. So that standard clearly doesn't always apply.)

How Would You Expand the Cemetery to Meet Future Needs? (two-year council candidates): This seems obvious: acquire more land. Both candidates settled on this answer, and Ellison was refreshingly brief. Gunther noted, if I understood correctly, that there are already funds reserved for some such acquisitions. If that's true, I'm glad to hear it.

What Is Your Commitment to Further Funding for the Arts? (mayoral candidates): In general, both candidates' responses were reasonable and not new. Thompson wants to compare the budget per participant for our arts and our recreation programs and bring it more nearly into balance. (That makes sense to me, but I want some data on actual costs per participant; it's possible that one or the other is inherently more expensive.) He also noted that our arts programs are "nationally renowned." (I am, to say the least, very skeptical on this point.)

Do You Support the American Fork Symphony? Do They Need a Place of Their Own? What Will Be Your Level of Support? (two-year council candidates): Ellison opposes tax increases to support the arts. Gunther thinks it's the top symphony in Utah County, maybe in Utah. (Again, are we getting a little full of ourselves here?) He wants to look at the comparative funding of arts and recreation. Right now, according to his numbers, the budget ratio between the Recreation Center and the Arts Council is 15 to 1.

Would You Raise Taxes to Improve Downtown? (mayoral candidates): In a word, both candidates said no. Then they said essentially what they said last time about improving downtown. LeBaron was a little clearer and more substantive than before, mentioning a downtown summit for all stakeholders to update the 1992 plan, facade improvement, variances, incentives, and a willingness for the City to provide infrastructure. I'll quibble on one point: LeBaron says that traffic calming is impossible on the portion of Main Street which is also a state highway; it can't be done, it's an impossible task. First, we're talking about politics and government here, not the laws of physics. It's hard to believe it's impossible. Second, I'm hearing from others that UDOT is displaying a new willingness to cooperate with cities on such matters as traffic calming on state highways. I'd like to believe this is true, and I think American Fork City should make a (persistent and aggressive) point of finding out.

Why Are You Running for City Council? ("We know you all love American Fork, so don't say that.") (four-year council candidates): First, you have to appreciate the wording of the question in this case. Second, there was little new in the answers, nor, really, could there be. Third, there were still a few interesting snippets. Cates got the best laugh of the evening by noting that every candidate has probably asked himself or herself the same question many times this week. Belmont said she's running because she asked twelve other good people to run, and they all said they couldn't. (Fact: Of the two people I know Belmont has urged to run in recent years, one isn't running and can't, and the other is. But perhaps she meant that person should run in 2003, not against her. I don't know about the other ten.) Fox aptly asked, if we keep making decisions and doing business as we have always done, how will we ever get a better result? (It's one of the best cases for voting against incumbents.) Rodeback, by far the youngest of the four candidates, with the youngest family, said she's running now, instead of later, for the sake of her children and their friends, who need a better city now (not after they've grown up and moved away).

What Is Your Plan for Completing Our Parks? (two-year council candidates): We need a long-range plan, we need to involve the residents, we need donations and volunteers. It doesn't matter who said which. They're both right.

Closing Statements (all): The closing statements were all at least good and in character. Interesting snippets: LeBaron urged voters to consider the good things he's been a part of, consider vision and specific plans, and to see his campaign Web site (which is much more substantive than Thompson's). Thompson said we need to focus on the basics (the same basics he has discussed before). Belmont referred to herself (accurately) as "a steadfast soldier" and asked voters to consider her record, which is out there for everyone to see. (Favorite soapbox point: Where is it? All this stuff should be available and accessible at a good city Web site, but it's not at ours.) She also said nothing should be done in secret. (This is unrealistic. Legally, some things have to be confidential.) Fox noted that it's important that city councilors be able to work with the mayor's office, and he's proven he can. (No dissent from me there.) Cates saw Gunther's Chinese wisdom last week and raised him (tonight) the wisdom of a proverbial Indian (Native American) chief. (Which candidate and whose wisdom will be next?) Cate's proverbial offering had the added virtue of relative brevity. Rodeback told how she came to be involved in American Fork politics, including her surveys of residents about their local parks, her rallying of support for the parks bond (at the City and among residents), and her subsequent work on the parks, including coordinating volunteers. Gunther read a good quotation (unattributed, and I couldn't find its source in a hasty Google search) about the citizens being ultimately responsible for their city. Ellison didn't bring any books tonight; so much for my wondering what he would have said about his third, unmentioned book from the other night.

I repeat: It's a strong pool of candidates. In one sense, the candidates have to be strong; tomorrow's event for council candidates will be the third public meet-the-candidates event in seven days. That might be too much of a good thing, as I have said, but it is at least a good thing. For what it's worth, the audience is somewhat different at every event, so there is some use in them.

It really was excellent pizza.

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